Science - Technology

Dr. James McCune

If you are interested in learning about the history of medicine and civil rights in America, you should know about Dr. James McCune Smith, the first African American to earn a medical degree and a leading abolitionist of the 19th century.

Dr. Smith was born in New York City in 1813, to an enslaved mother who bought her own freedom and a white father who was probably a merchant. He attended the African Free School, a progressive institution that provided education for free and enslaved black children. There he showed remarkable talent and intelligence, excelling in various subjects and languages.

However, despite his academic achievements, he faced discrimination and racism in his pursuit of higher education. No American college or university would admit him because of his race. Undeterred, he applied to the University of Glasgow in Scotland, where he was accepted and received a scholarship. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1835, a master’s degree in 1836, and a medical degree in 1837, becoming the first African American to earn an M.D.

He returned to New York in 1837 and opened his own medical practice and pharmacy, the first owned by an African American in the nation. He also became the physician of the Colored Orphan Asylum, where he served for nearly 20 years until it was burned down by a mob during the draft riots of 1863. He then moved his family and practice to Brooklyn for safety.

Dr. Smith was not only a skilled and compassionate physician, but also a prolific writer and activist. He published articles in medical journals, refuting common myths and stereotypes about race, health, and intelligence. He also wrote essays and gave lectures on abolitionism, history, culture, and politics. He was friends and colleagues with prominent figures such as Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, and Gerrit Smith. He helped organize the National Council of Colored People, the first permanent national organization for blacks, in 1853. He also participated in learned societies such as the New York Statistics Society and the American Geographic Society.

Dr. Smith died in 1865, shortly after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. He left behind a legacy of excellence, courage, and service that inspired generations of African Americans to pursue their dreams and fight for their rights. He was a trailblazer in medicine and a visionary in social justice. He deserves to be remembered as one of America’s greatest heroes.

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