James McCune Smith (1813-1865) was the first African American practice medicine in the United States. He is remembered for his successful work as a physician and for his scholarly writings against slavery.
James McCune Smith was born in New York City on April 18, 1813, the son of a slave and a self-emancipated woman, some sources say that his parents were of mixed race. He attended the African Free School in New York City. According to the Dictionary of American Biography, one day the famed Revolutionary War hero, Lafayette, spoke with the students and Smith, then aged 11, was chosen to speak on behalf of the class.
Schooled in Scotland
Smith continued his education at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, where he received his B.A. in 1835, his master's degree in 1836 and his medical degree in 1837. Smith was stocky in build, with a full face and attractive eyes. He was considered an eloquent speaker, according to Carter Woodson's Negro Makers of History. He was married and had five children.
Smith worked briefly as a doctor in clinics in Paris, France, but returned to New York City where he opened a pharmacy on West Broadway, the first ever to be operated by an African American. He worked as a physician and surgeon from 1838 until two years before his death in 1865. For 20 years, he served on the medical staff at the Free Negro Orphan Asylum in New York City.
In 1846, a man from Peterboro, New York, donated 120,000 acres in the state to be divided and given to African Americans living in New York City, as reported the Dictionary of American Biography. Smith and two members of the African American clergy were given the task of selecting the nearly 2,000 people to receive the land.
Worked Against Sending Blacks Back to Africa
While many people of the day supported the idea that blacks should be returned to Africa, Smith did not. He met with blacks in favor of the move in Albany, New York, in 1852 and persuaded them to adopt a statement urging the New York State Legislature to reject efforts to send black Americans back to Africa. Smith went as far as to challenge a member of Congress from South Carolina, John C. Calhoun, after Calhoun pronounced that African Americans were prone to insanity. Smith's response, showing the information to be false, was called, "The Influence of Climate upon Longevity."
Dedicated to doing all he could to support black emancipation and equality, Smith worked as a supporter of the Underground Railroad, a movement to help slaves escape to freedom. He contributed articles to a publication called Emancipator and edited another called Colored American.
Wrote Scholarly Articles on Slavery
Regarded as the most scholarly African American of his time, Smith's writings suggest his wide-ranging interests. His articles include "Abolition of Slavery and the Slave Trade in the French and British Colonies," 1838; "On the Haitian Revolutions, with a Sketch of the Character of Toussaint L'Overture," 1841; "Freedom and Slavery for Africans," 1844; "The Influence of Climate upon Longevity: With Special Reference to Life Insurance," 1846; "Civilization: Its Dependence on Physical Circumstances," 1859; "The German Invasion" (which dealt with immigration and how it affected life in America), 1859; "Citizenship" (a report on the Dred Scott decision), 1859; and "On the Fourteenth Query of Thomas Jefferson's Notes on Virginia" (which compared the anatomy of whites and blacks), 1859.
Smith was appointed to teach anthropology at Ohio's Wilberforce University in 1863, but his poor health kept him from taking the position. He died of heart disease at his Long Island, New York, home on November 17, 1865.
Further Reading on James McCune Smith
Kaufman, Martin, and Todd L. Savitt, editors, Dictionary of American Medical Biography, Greenwood Press, 1984, p. 693.
Woodson, Carter G., and Charles H. Wesley, Negro Makers of History, Associated Publishers, 6th ed., 1968, pp. 167-168.
Malone, Dumas, editor, Dictionary of American Biography, 1935, pp. 288-289. Blight, David W., In Search of Learning, Liberty, and Self Definition: James McCune Smith and the Ordeal of the Antebellum Black Intellectual, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, Vol. 9(2), 1985, pp. 7-25.
Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 54(2), 1980, pp. 258-272.