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J Natl Med Assoc. 2003 July; 95(7): 603–614.
PMCID: PMC2594637

The education and medical practice of Dr. James McCune Smith (1813-1865), first black American to hold a medical degree.


James McCune Smith (1813-1865)--first black American to obtain a medical degree, prominent abolitionist and suffragist, compassionate physician, prolific writer, and public intellectual--has been relatively neglected by historians of medicine. No biography of Smith exists to this day, though he has been the subject of several essays. Born, in his own words, "the son of a self-emancipated bond-woman," and denied admission to colleges in the United States, his native land, Smith earned medical, master's, and baccalaureate degrees at Glasgow University in Scotland. On his return to New York City in 1837, Smith became the first black physician to publish articles in US medical journals. Smith was broadly involved in the anti-slavery and suffrage movements, contributing to and editing abolitionist newspapers and serving as an officer of many organizations for the improvement of social conditions in the black community. In his scientific writings Smith debunked the racial theories in Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, refuted phrenology and homeopathy, and responded with a forceful statistical critique to the racially biased US Census of 1840. Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, and John Brown personally collaborated with James McCune Smith in the fight for black freedom. As the learned physician-scholar of the abolition movement, Smith was instrumental in making the overthrow of slavery credible and successful.

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