Standing against centuries of discrimination, James McCune Smith, MD was the first African American to earn a medical degree and run a U.S. pharmacy.
Smith was born in 1813 in New York City to a “self-emancipated woman” who had earned her freedom from slavery. Sharing his mother’s determination, James McCune Smith, MD applied to the University of Glasgow in Scotland, after being denied admission to Columbia University and Geneva Medical College due to his race. Smith was admitted and moved overseas. He received his medical degree in 1837, graduating at the top of his class. During his practice of 25 years, Smith was also the first African American to have articles published in American medical journals.
A staunch abolitionist, he was active in the American Anti-Slavery Society, and he helped Frederick Douglas to establish the National Council of Colored People in the 1850s as one of the first national organizations to work on racial issues. As a member of the Committee of Thirteen, Smith helped to rally against the Fugitive Slave Act that required states to aid federal law enforcement in the capturing of escaped slaves. The Committee also aided fugitive slaves, connecting them to the Underground Railroad – much of which was orchestrated from the back rooms of his pharmacy.
Dr. James McCune Smith died on November 17, 1865 of congestive heart failure at the age of 52. Nineteen days later, the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified, abolishing slavery throughout the country.