Dr. James McCune Smith


African-American newspapers covered Smith’s academic progress. In 1837, the Boston Liberator reported he had earned his medical degree, commenting, “It remains to be seen, what respect will be shown to his accomplished education, professional skills, and rare and abundant acquisitions.”

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library

Denied admission to medical schools in the United States because he was black, James McCune Smith, the son of a slave, earned a medical degree in Scotland and became the first licensed African American doctor as well as a leading intellectual and abolitionist.

Born in 1813, Smith, whose mother was a slave, was indentured until 1827 under the 1817 New York act establishing the gradual abolition of slavery in the state. Smith attended the African Free School, where, in 1824, his teachers chose him to address visiting French General Lafayette.

When his applications to American medical schools were denied, Smith boarded a steamship to attend the University of Glasgow with money collected in the African-American community. At Glasgow, he learned Greek, French and Latin, in addition to studying medicine. He earned three degrees: a bachelor’s, master’s and a medical degree.

Shortly after his arrival in Scotland, James McCune Smith wrote his mother that he felt like a freeman for the first time in his life.

In New York, Smith opened a medical practice and a pharmacy, believed to be the nation’s first black-owned pharmacy; the store’s back room became a hub of the abolitionist movement. Smith also served as medical director of the Colored Orphan Asylum, in New York City, for almost 20 years, until the building was torched in the 1863 draft riots.

A leading abolitionist, Smith edited the Colored American newspaper and was a prolific orator and author, often using his scientific background to refute popular beliefs on the inferiority of the African race. He also lectured on human progress and wrote about the islands of the Caribbean Sea, for which he received a medal from the American Geographic Society.

Dr. James McCune Smith attended the African Free School, at #2 Mulberry Street in Lower Manhattan. The school had been founded by the New York Manumission Society in 1787 to provide an education for the children of slaves.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library.

The Glasgow Emancipation Society raised money to support James McCune Smith’s studies at the University of Glasgow. The University of Glasgow honors Dr. Smith’s achievements through hosting the James McCune Smith lecture series.

University of Glasgow Archives

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