February 8, 2022

National Black History Month: Dr. James McCune Smith

Celebrating Dr. James McCune Smith

How many firsts in the history of our country can one man achieve? How much adversity can he overcome? Who could win accolades from Frederick Douglas and comparisons to Herman Melville? 

The many firsts of Dr. James McCune Smith 
  • First black American to receive a medical degree–from the University of Glasgow Medical School because in the 1830s no American school would admit him
  • First black owner and operator of a U.S. pharmacy
  • First black doctor to publish in a U.S. medical journal (“On the Influence of Opium upon the Catamenial Functions”)
  • Led research to dispel pseudoscience justifying African American enslavement (“The Fallacy of Phrenology”)
  • Co-founded the Radical Abolitionist Party with Frederick Douglas and John Brown (yes, THAT John Brown) and a former Congressman named Gerrit Smith
Frederick Douglas had this to say:

“No man in this country more thoroughly understands the whole struggle between freedom and slavery than does Dr. Smith, and his heart is as broad as his understanding.” 

Harvard English professor John Stauffer wrote:

“The closest equivalent I really can say about [James McCune Smith] as a writer is Melville. The subtlety and the intricacy and the nuance…and what he reveals about life and culture and society are truly extraordinary. Every sentence contains a huge amount.”

For context all the above was accomplished by a freed slave before the beginning of the Civil War, which at long last–at least in principle–ended slavery. Sadly, Dr. Smith died in November 1865 just 6 months after the war’s end.  

Perhaps sadder still is the fact that Dr. Smith’s legacy was nearly lost due to the dangers African Americans faced. His ancestor, Greta Blau: “In order for his children to be safe and pass, he had to be forgotten…which is tragic.”

Smithsonian Magazine points out that “Knowledge of Smith’s achievements as an African American might have endured had he published books, but his essays from periodicals were more easily forgotten. Whereas Douglass was the most photographed American of the 19th century, only one portrait of Smith exists.”

Upon returning from school abroad, Dr. Smith said, “I have striven to obtain education, at every sacrifice and every hazard, and to apply such education to the good of our common country.” It was his statistical analysis, sharply honed by that education, which led to debunking the common justification for slavery of the day–that southern slaves were far better off than their freed peers in the north. His argument against the spurious science was so persuasive that one of its leading proponents–a physician educated at Harvard–later joined Dr. Smith in dismissing it. We could wonder where our country would be had such a justification been allowed to stand. Thanks to Dr. Smith’s efforts we don’t have to.  

It’s been said many times. Black history is the history of this country. Dr. James McCune Smith was a man of many firsts, deep convictions that contributed not only to medicine but to rallying a country around the belief that all men are created equal.

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