Black History Month: Remembering First African American Physician James McCune Smith

James McCune Smith was a pioneer as an African-American physician, abolitionist, and author in New York City. He was the first African American to hold a medical degree and graduated at the top of his class at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. After his return to the United States, he became the first African American to run a pharmacy.

But beyond all that, he dedicated his career and life to fighting for human rights.

He was an abolitionist and worked with Frederick Douglass to start the National Council of Colored People (the first permanent national organization for Black people) in 1853.

He supported women’s suffrage alongside Susan B. Anthony.

He exposed false medical data about mortality rates of African Americans in the North versus the South in the 1840 US Census. He then skillfully used his knowledge of statistics to prove the opposite—that mortality rates had significantly improved for those who had escaped slavery.

He exposed unethical drug trials conducted on impoverished women in Glasgow without their consent, despite putting his career at risk for doing so.

He used his writing and medical training to confront racist medical theories about African Americans.

The list goes on. Because of his significant accomplishments and activism, he became a role model for many African Americans who pursued medicine in the following decades, helping them see that being a Black physician could be about so much more than treating patients.

The medical world and the United States wouldn’t be what they are today without the work, sacrifices, and activism of Dr. James McCune Smith.

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