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Dr. James McCune Smith

Dr. James McCune Smith Dr. James McCune Smith was not only the first African American to receive a medical degree, graduating with honors from the University of Glasgow, but he was also the first to own and operate a pharmacy in the U.S. and the first to publish in scientific journals abroad and in U.S. medical journals.

Dr. Smith was an author, abolitionist, and early leader in the effort to dispel widely held misconceptions and fallacies as they pertained to both race and society. He was a great intellectual who wrote, spoke and stood for the complete abolition of slavery in America. He openly debunked faulty science that portrayed Black people as inferior, and was a pioneer in the cause of minority rights and the brotherhood of all men and women.

Born into slavery in New York City in 1813, Dr. Smith was not allowed to attend medical school in the U.S. because of racial prejudice, but instead had to travel to Scotland to attain his medical degree in 1837. His early education was in New York's African Free School #2 in Lower Manhattan, where he was part of a cohort of young men who would go on to change the nation and the world in regard to the treatment and perception of African Americans.

After his return to New York from Scotland, Smith established a medical practice in Manhattan where he treated both Black and White people and developed a reputation as one of the best doctors in New York. He established the first Black-owned pharmacy at this location and started a school in the evenings where he taught local children. He was also appointed as the only physician for the Colored Orphan Asylum in 1846, serving there for over 20 years.

Greatly admired by his friend and fellow member of the American Anti-Slavery Society Frederick Douglass, Smith was a staunch abolitionist who helped Douglass form the National Council of Colored People in 1853, and even wrote the introduction to Douglass's book, "My Bondage and My Freedom." The backroom of Smith's pharmacy was used as a meeting place for activists and other intellectuals.

As a member of the Committee of Thirteen, Smith fought against legislation that endangered escaped slaves and helped arrange the protection of runaways. He and other Black leaders in New York pioneered the cause of minority rights by forming the Legal Rights Association (LRA). The organization fought and defeated racial segregation in New York and became a model for future civil rights groups. He was also a founding member of the interracial Radical Abolitionist Party in 1855.

Smith was a visionary. His views were widely read amongst all people and he was a popular figure throughout the U.S. He considered race to be a construct of society, with no biological basis whatsoever. He believed education was the key to end slavery and that African American culture would play a pivotal role in American arts and literature.

Smith died in 1865 from congestive heart failure at the age of 52, just 19 days before the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which effectively ended slavery in America.

The collected writings of Dr. Smith are found in the book, The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist (2006), edited by John Stauffer.