James McCune Smith

Biography of James McCune Smith

James McCune Smith
James McCune Smith

James McCune Smith graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1837 and became the first African American to receive a medical degree.

During his studies in Glasgow, Smith obtained three university degrees – a bachelor’s degree (1835), a master’s degree(1836) and his medical doctorate (1837).

As well as being a successful physician, he was a great abolitionist and educator as well as a brilliant scholar and writer who was one of the foremost intellectuals in 19th century America of any race.

Born a slave in 1813 in New York City, he and all of New York’s remaining slaves were liberated by the state’s Emancipation Act 1827. A fortunate beneficiary of the New York African Free-School, Smith was identified early in his life as being intellectually gifted.

But when he applied for entry to several American universities he was refused admission on account of his race. The University of Glasgow stepped in and offered him a place, which he took up in 1832.

Recognising Smith’s academic ability, some of New York’s more prosperous African Americans combined to pay Smith’s passage to Scotland and contribute towards his tuition and living costs. These would later be shared by the Glasgow Emancipation Society, of which he became an active member during his time in the city.

He attended classes such as the Greek class of Daniel Keyte Sandford in 1832-33; the Anatomy classes of Professor James Jeffray in 1833-34; and Medicine and Surgery classes in 1835.

Smith flourished in the demanding academic environs of one of Britain’s “ancient” medieval universities, and a leading seat of the Scottish Enlightenment.

After five years study, and in an era when few Americans attended university, and fewer still bothered to finish their degrees and graduate, Smith had earned three degrees. He was fluent in Latin, Greek and French and with a working knowledge of Hebrew, Italian, Spanish and German, making him one of the best educated Americans of his time.

He returned to New York in 1837, not simply as a gifted and able African American but a man who had the belief that things could be different.

During his time in Scotland, he had studied at an elite university as an equal with white people. It was a revelation for an African American where equality of this kind was impossible in his own country and where slavery was still legal in the Southern states. Smith believe this could be changed and he felt that he was living proof of how things could be different - his education and learning could demonstrated that he was the equal of any man, regardless of race. It was a belief he championed for the rest of his life.

Frederick Douglass, the American social reformer and abolitionist, recognised the deep significance of his friend’s five-years outside the United States, saying: “Educated in Scotland, and breathing the free air of that country” Smith “came back to his native land with ideas of liberty which placed him in advance of most of his citizens of African descent”.

Dr Smith opened his own practice and pharmacy, noted to be the first African American owned and operated pharmacy in America, where he treated both black and white patients. Smith would eventually own two pharmacies and would continue to practice medicine for 25 years.

Smith’s body of work including his abolitionist speeches and writings supported an end to slavery and black civil rights. But they were also the work of a black intellectual commentator who did not define himself solely by his race, who celebrated the nobility of Africans and their descendants, and who resisted the racial categorizations of others.

He also wrote about medicine, science, pharmacy, literature, and geography, but his education and his own interests encouraged him to transcend his professional world and write about the people and world around him including a series of literary portraits of working class African Americans of New York.

In the 1840s Smith married Malvina Barnet. They had 11 children but only five survived to adulthood. Dr Smith died of heart disease in 1865, aged just 52.


James McCune Smith
Born 18 April 1813.
Died 17 November 1865.
University Link: Alumnus, Graduate
GU Degrees: BA, 1835; MA, 1836; MD, 1837;
Occupation categories: physicians
Record last updated: 28th Sep 2018

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