ACPHS In The News

BLACK HISTORY MONTH SPOTLIGHT: Dr. James McCune Smith, Physician and Pharmacist

Historical photo of Dr. James McCune Smith
February 21, 2024

Throughout the month of February 2024, ACPHS's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team will help us recognize the contributions of various Black health care leaders. Follow along on our social media channels and in our weekly Campus Connections enews. Developed by first-year DEI work study students, Angelina Reish, pharmacy, and Tobias LaFountain, microbiology. 

James McCune Smith was born in Manhattan to an enslaved woman on April 18, 1813. He was born an indentured servant because the New York State Gradual Emancipation Act of 1799 stated people born to slave women after July 4, 1799, would be free, indentured servants to the master of their mother until adulthood. He was later freed from this servitude on July 4, 1827, at age 14, by New York's Emancipation Act.  

From age nine, Smith attended the New York African Free School No. 2, where he excelled beyond his peers and graduated valedictorian in 1828 at the age of 15. However, due to his skin color, no college in the country would accept him. This led him to seek higher education beyond America, and he attended Glasgow University in Scotland for five years (1832-1837). He became a distinguished student, earning a Bachelor of Art (1835), a Master of Art (1836) and a medical degree (1837), becoming the first African American to hold one. While at Glasgow, he learned many skills alongside the medical degree, including the new science of statistics.

Upon graduating, Dr. Smith went to Paris for further medical training. After he returned to New York, he served in many medical positions. He was the physician for the Colored Orphan Asylum in Manhattan for 20 years. He also served as the community dentist and pharmacist, thus becoming the first African American pharmacist. He went on to achieve much success and several more firsts. He wrote a case study titled “Case of ptyalism with fatal termination,” published a medical scientific paper in the New York Journal of Medicine and wrote numerous scientific articles. Dr. Smith was a prominent opponent of phrenology, the science that claimed to scientifically prove Africans are inferior, using his medical and statistical knowledge to refute the pseudoscience. Dr. Smith used statistical and medical science in an effort to help abolish slavery in the South and promote equality.


Photo from: Daniel Alexander Payne, 1811-1893 Recollections of Seventy Years. Nashville: A. M. E. Sunday School Union, 1888