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James McCune Smith

James McCune Smith

James McCune Smith (1813-1865) was the first African American practice medicine in the United States. He is remembered for his successful work as a physician and for his scholarly writings against slavery.

James McCune Smith was born in New York City on April 18, 1813, the son of a slave and a self-emancipated woman, some sources say that his parents were of mixed race. He attended the African Free School in New York City. According to the Dictionary of American Biography, one day the famed Revolutionary War hero, Lafayette, spoke with the students and Smith, then aged 11, was chosen to speak on behalf of the class.

Schooled in Scotland

Smith continued his education at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, where he received his B.A. in 1835, his master's degree in 1836 and his medical degree in 1837. Smith was stocky in build, with a full face and attractive eyes. He was considered an eloquent speaker, according to Carter Woodson's Negro Makers of History. He was married and had five children.

Smith worked briefly as a doctor in clinics in Paris, France, but returned to New York City where he opened a pharmacy on West Broadway, the first ever to be operated by an African American. He worked as a physician and surgeon from 1838 until two years before his death in 1865. For 20 years, he served on the medical staff at the Free Negro Orphan Asylum in New York City.

In 1846, a man from Peterboro, New York, donated 120,000 acres in the state to be divided and given to African Americans living in New York City, as reported the Dictionary of American Biography. Smith and two members of the African American clergy were given the task of selecting the nearly 2,000 people to receive the land.

Worked Against Sending Blacks Back to Africa

While many people of the day supported the idea that blacks should be returned to Africa, Smith did not. He met with blacks in favor of the move in Albany, New York, in 1852 and persuaded them to adopt a statement urging the New York State Legislature to reject efforts to send black Americans back to Africa. Smith went as far as to challenge a member of Congress from South Carolina, John C. Calhoun, after Calhoun pronounced that African Americans were prone to insanity. Smith's response, showing the information to be false, was called, "The Influence of Climate upon Longevity."

Dedicated to doing all he could to support black emancipation and equality, Smith worked as a supporter of the Underground Railroad, a movement to help slaves escape to freedom. He contributed articles to a publication called Emancipator and edited another called Colored American.

Wrote Scholarly Articles on Slavery

Regarded as the most scholarly African American of his time, Smith's writings suggest his wide-ranging interests. His articles include "Abolition of Slavery and the Slave Trade in the French and British Colonies," 1838; "On the Haitian Revolutions, with a Sketch of the Character of Toussaint L'Overture," 1841; "Freedom and Slavery for Africans," 1844; "The Influence of Climate upon Longevity: With Special Reference to Life Insurance," 1846; "Civilization: Its Dependence on Physical Circumstances," 1859; "The German Invasion" (which dealt with immigration and how it affected life in America), 1859; "Citizenship" (a report on the Dred Scott decision), 1859; and "On the Fourteenth Query of Thomas Jefferson's Notes on Virginia" (which compared the anatomy of whites and blacks), 1859.

Smith was appointed to teach anthropology at Ohio's Wilberforce University in 1863, but his poor health kept him from taking the position. He died of heart disease at his Long Island, New York, home on November 17, 1865.

Further Reading

Kaufman, Martin, and Todd L. Savitt, editors, Dictionary of American Medical Biography, Greenwood Press, 1984, p. 693.

Woodson, Carter G., and Charles H. Wesley, Negro Makers of History, Associated Publishers, 6th ed., 1968, pp. 167-168.

Malone, Dumas, editor, Dictionary of American Biography, 1935, pp. 288-289. Blight, David W., In Search of Learning, Liberty, and Self Definition: James McCune Smith and the Ordeal of the Antebellum Black Intellectual, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, Vol. 9(2), 1985, pp. 7-25.

Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 54(2), 1980, pp. 258-272. □

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Smith, James McCune

Smith, James McCune

April 18, 1813
November 17, 1865

The physician and abolitionist James McCune Smith was born in New York City, the son of freed slaves. He received his early education at the African Free School, but even with an excellent academic record, he was effectively barred from American colleges because of his race. In 1832 he entered Glasgow University in Scotland, where heearned three academic degrees, including a doctorate in medicine. He also gained prominence in the Scottish antislavery movement as an officer of the Glasgow Emancipation Society.

Following a short internship in Paris, Smith returned to New York City in 1837 and established a medical practice and pharmacy. His distinction as the first degreeholding African-American physician assured him a prominent position in the city's black community. He was involved in several charitable and educational organizations, including the Philomathean Society and the Colored Orphan Asylum.

Smith's intellect, integrity, and lifelong commitment to abolitionism brought him state and national recognition. From the early 1840s, he provided leadership for the campaign to expand black voting rights in New York, although he initially refused to ally with any political party. In the 1850s, Smith continued his suffrage activity through the black state conventions. He eventually gravitated to the political antislavery views of the Radical Abolition Party, and he received the party's nomination for New York secretary of state in 1857.

As a member of the Committee of Thirteen, a group of local black leaders (not to be confused with the U.S. Senate committee formed in 1860 called the Committee of Thirteen) he helped organize local resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. He was ranked among the steadfast opponents of the colonization and black emigration movements, affirming instead the struggle for the rights of American citizenship. Although committed to racial integration, he understood the practical and symbolic importance of separate black institutions, organizations, and initiatives. He called for an independent black press, and he worked with Frederick Douglass (18181895) in the early 1850s to establish the first permanent national African-American organizationthe National Council of the Colored People.

Smith provided intellectual direction as well as personal leadership for the black abolitionist movement. From his critiques of colonization and black emigration in the 1840s and 1850s to his analysis of Reconstruction in the 1860s, his commentary informed the debate on racial identity and the future of African Americans. Smith's published essays include two pamphlets, A Lecture on the Haytian Revolution (1841) and The Destiny of the People of Color (1843). He wrote several lengthy articles for Anglo-African Magazine in 1859, and also provided introductions to Frederick Douglass's second autobiography and Henry Highland Garnet's Memorial Discourse (1865). Although he never published his own journal, he assisted other black editors in all phases of newspaper publishing.

His letters to Frederick Douglass's paper often appeared under the pseudonym "Communipaw." He contributed as a correspondent or assistant editor to several other journals, including the Colored American, Northern Star and Freeman's Advocate, Douglass' Monthly, and Weekly Anglo-African. Smith's professional standing, erudition, and community involvement made his life a triumph over racism, and his name was frequently invoked by contemporaries as a benchmark for black intellect and achievement.

See also Abolition; African Free School; Douglass, Frederick


Ripley, C. Peter, et al., eds. The Black Abolitionist Papers. Vol. 3, The United States, 18301846. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Ripley, C. Peter, et al., eds. The Black Abolitionist Papers. Vol. 4, The United States, 18471858. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Stauffer, John. The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

michael f. hembree (1996)
Updated bibliography

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"Smith, James McCune." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

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"Smith, James McCune." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from