In the morning of August 16, 1832 a 19 year old James McCune Smith stepped onto the wooden ship Caledonia on the piers of NY and set sail for Glasgow University across the sea to Scotland. He was leaving behind a world of prejudice, racial tension, and discouraging barriers to pursue his dream of becoming a physician in Europe where people of “colored skin” could be allotted the opportunity. Years later he would return home to a hero’s welcome in New York, as the first African American MD in the US.
His story of struggle and perseverance is made more amazing by the social circumstances of 19th century America. Even as a young and optimistic man, just beginning to come to terms with a world that wouldn’t give him a chance, he never let the negativity around him quell his thirst of knowledge and improvement. Instead, he himself forged his own identity and set out to change his surroundings to the tune of what he saw as the truth, that young African Americans were just as competent as their white brethren and that the inequalities of the West must be demolished. In a time when Congress was writing legislation to send young Black men out of the country, when leaders like Thomas Jefferson were questioning if the African American race had similar “intellectucal endowments” as others, James McCune Smith stood out as a progressive thinker and compassionate physician whose legacy has unfortunately been forgotten.  Here are 3 dimensions to James McCune Smith.

The Beginning.

He was many things in the brilliance of his later years, but at the start he was a bright kid growing up in New York City a decade before the state passed laws for emancipation. Born to a woman who he himself refers to as “a self-emancipated bond woman” and father whom he barely mentioned in future letters Smith remembers those days being marked with “constant apprehension and jeopardy”[1.]

He would go on to attend African Free School No. 2 on Mulberry Street and quickly be noticed for his articulate speech and intelligence. So much was his talent that he was chosen to speak in front of famed abolitionist Marquis de Lafayette. The elaborate words he used that day would foreshadow his prolific writing career to come, which he would use to disprove long-held ideas of prejudice and racial inferiority.

Sir, you behold hundreds of poor children of Africa sharing with those of a lighter hue in the blessings of education; and, while it will be our great pleasure to remember the great deeds you have done for America, it will be our delight also to cherish the memory of General Lafayette as a friend to African emancipation and as a member of this institution.

At the end of his tenure as a high school student he would apply to Columbia University and Geneva College only to be denied based on his race. His mentor would encourage him to study abroad and years later he would set up a practice in Manhatten and officially become the first African American MD in the United States, paving the way for future doctors and changing how the elite of the time viewed race.

He was fierce intellectual.

Smith studied at Glasgow University during a time when advances in quantitative public health were being made. He used his sophisticated statistical thinking to great effect as both a physician and abolitionist.

In his work “Lay Puffery of Homeopathy” he would express his orthodox view of medicine by critiquing the claims of homeopathic physician William K. Lothorp (really homeopathic medicine at large) that such treatments had led to a lower death rate among children in New York orphanages. Smith would reexamine the records of the orphanages, revise erroneous figures, and reanalyze the mortality statistics to include only those who had the specific treatments since the beginning of the data collection. In doing so he demonstrated a very sophisticated understanding of controlled comparison (what we use today) and technical skill in quantitative measure.

Later in his life he would continue to refute popular opinion with his scientifically sound principles, specifically taking issue with racially biased statistics. In what would be known to be his most profound work, A Dissertation on the Influence of Climate on Longevity, he would refute the 1840 census which was constructed to be racially biased and used by prominent politicians to promote their views on slavery. His work would be featured in Harvard University committee focusing on such issues and his recognition as a savant would be further bolstered.

He was an abolitionist.

James McCune Smith was a key player during the Anti-Slavery Movement, even Fredrick Douglas was quoted to say that the physician was the most important influence over his life. Unfortunately much attention hasn’t been allotted to Dr. Smith, possibly because he preferred writing over establishing a public persona.[1.]. His early writings such as “Destiny of the People of Slavery” and “Freedom and Slavery for the Africans” thrust him into the limelight of discussion and he was very involved at all levels of the anti-slavery movement.

He served as director of the Colored People’s Educational Movement to the Memory of Abraham Lincoln but most interestingly [at least to me] he wrote a regular column for Douglas’s newspaper under the name “Communipaw” where he would involve himself in more radical political activities. Over his life he became the scholarly presence of the anti-slavery movement and was a relevant force for justice leading towards the fall of slavery in 1865 near the end of his life.

He was a physician.

In spite of his busy activist and writing life he was still primarily a doctor, and the first African American MD at that. He had a busy general medical/surgical practice in Manhattan where he would perform the common procedures of his time [bleeding, tooth-drawing, cupping, and leeching]. He catered to all races and opened an evening school for children later in his life.

He was also the appointed physician at an orphanage for young African American Children, located on 44th and 5th. It was later burned down by draft riots in 1836 [all the children escaped] but before then it had admitted over 1300 kids and provided residence for over 200. So important was his role that when the railroads refused to provide him transport to and from the orphanage, the directors interceded on his behalf and bought him a private escort at their own expense. On 1832 Smith presented the trustees with a 5000 acre plot of land to be held in a trust and later sold for the benefits of the orphans.

On September 3rd, 1840 he authored the first case report by a black physician entitled, “Case of ptyalism with fatal termination”[AKA tongue swelling]. A surgeon who consulted on the case would read it before the New York Medical and Surgical Society. He would later go on to also publish the first medical scientific paper by an African American physician in the New York Journal of Medicine [on the cessation of menses coincident with use of opium]. Needless to say his actions opened doors for the people that would come after him, and to me belongs on the pantheon of heroes in Black American History, amongst the Jackie Robinsons, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther Kings of our world.

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