DLH is celebrating Black History Month by honoring the legacy of African-American leaders in public health, government, and information technology. Click here to view more entries in our series.
Born in 1813, James McCune Smith would become the first African American to receive a medical degree. Beyond this landmark achievement, his influence in American medicine is remarkable. He was a forerunner in the use of medical statistics to challenge the notion of black racial inferiority and used science to push back against theories of phrenology.
His journey, of course, was arduous. McCune Smith was born a slave. In 1799, New York passed a Gradual Emancipation Act which freed children born from that point on, but under that law McCune Smith remained indentured until he was a young adult. He nonetheless sought out an education, attending and excelling at the New York African Free School. Unable to attend college in the United States due to his race, Smith traveled to Scotland to attend Glasgow University and earned three academic degrees, including a doctorate in medicine.
Dr. McCune Smith returned to New York and became a key figure in the black community, advocating on behalf of abolitionist causes and aligning with influential figures such as Frederick Douglass to found the National Council of the Colored People. Douglass would refer to McCune Smith as ‘the single most important influence on his life.’ He used science to debunk the doubts about the ability of black Americans to transition to a free society that were all too common in the discourse of the era.
A giving physician who worked with orphans, published his work, and fought to end slavery, James McCune Smith is a towering figure in U.S. history.
Learn more about the life and legacy of Dr. James McCune Smith from Advances in Physiology Education.
‘James McCune Smith,’ The New York African Free School
‘First African-American to hold a medical degree: brief history of James McCune Smith, abolitionist, educator, and physician,’ by Heidi L. Lujan and Stephen E. DiCarlo, Advances in Physiology Education.
‘The education and medical practice of Dr. James McCune Smith (1813-1865), first black American to hold a medical degree,’ by Thomas M. Morgan, Journal of the National Medical Association