Celebrating Dr. James McCune Smith

Written by Martine Cumbermack, Partner

Born into slavery in New York City in 1813, as a young man James McCune Smith set his sights on becoming a doctor. He was denied admission to American colleges because he was Black, but he was able to attend the University of Glasgow in Scotland, where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and medical degrees by age 24. He graduated with honors and was immediately given a prestigious clinical residency in Glasgow’s Lock Hospital. McCune Smith became the first African-American known to be published in a British medical journal – and he used this platform to reveal a cover-up by an ambitious medical professor who was experimenting on vulnerable women in Glasgow in the 1830s.

When he returned to New York City in 1837, he established his own medical office and pharmacy at 93 West Broadway — making him the first university-trained African American physician with his own practice in the United States. Specializing in general surgery and family medicine, he treated both Black and white patients. In 1846, Smith was appointed as the only physician of the Colored Orphan Asylum (also known as the Free Negro Orphan Asylum), which was founded in 1836 by Anna and Hannah Shotwell and Mary Murray, Quaker philanthropists in New York. (Before that time, the directors had depended on pro bono services of physicians.) He worked there for nearly 20 years trying to protect the children, and regularly gave vaccinations for smallpox. In addition to caring for orphans, the home sometimes boarded children temporarily when their parents were unable to support them, as jobs were scarce for free blacks in New York.

Smith was also known as a prolific writer and essayist. He drew from his medical training to discredit popular misconceptions about differences among the races. In 1843, he gave a lecture series entitled Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of the Races to demonstrate the failings of phrenology, which was a so-called 'scientific' practice of the time that was applied in a way to draw racist conclusions and attribute negative characteristics to ethnic Africans. He rejected the practice of homeopathy, an alternative to the scientific medicine being taught in universities. In 1846, Smith published A Dissertation on the Influence of Climate on Longevity to refute then U.S. Secretary of State John Calhoun’s claim that freedom was bad for Blacks. In 1859, Smith published an article using scientific findings and analysis to refute the former president Thomas Jefferson's theories of race, as expressed in his well-known Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). Smith was also known for writing his introduction to Frederick Douglass’s 2nd autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, and gained prominence for his regularly published columns in Frederick Douglass Paper. Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble, a medical physician and historian at George Washington University, in 2010 noted, "As early as 1859, Dr. McCune Smith said that race was not biological but was a social category." He commented on the positive ways that ethnic Africans would influence U.S. culture and society, in music, dance, food, and other elements. His collected essays, speeches, and letters have been published as The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist (2006), edited by John Stauffer. Although he had a successful medical career, Smith was never admitted to the American Medical Association because of racial discrimination. (Click here to read more on the AMA’s history of discrimination).

Smith died on November 17, 1865, at the age of 52, only nineteen days before ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution that abolished slavery. In November 2018, the New York Academy of Medicine posthumously inducted Smith as a Fellow of the Academy, 171 years after his original nomination and 153 years after his death. At the 2018 Discourse and Awards ceremony, NYAM President Judith Salerno presented a replica certificate of fellowship to Professor Joanne Edey-Rhodes, who accepted on behalf of Smith’s descendants. In 2019, the academy also formally unveiled a portrait of Smith, commissioned by Academy Fellow Dr. Daniel Laroche and painted by artist Junior Jacques. It now is on display at the Academy.

Dr. Smith’s accomplishments cannot adequately be summarized in this blurb. The above, however, highlights some of the extraordinary deeds by one of many Black pioneers who faced numerous obstacles in their quest to educate themselves and serve others in the field of medicine, while also fighting for equal rights for free and enslaved Blacks. Though the above mainly discusses his medical and literary contributions to medicine, Dr. Smith’s work in the abolitionist movement was also unparalleled. To learn more about Dr. James McCune Smith, check out Smithsonian Magazine’s article on his life, as well as The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist (2006) mentioned above.

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