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African American Medical Pioneers: James McCune Smith

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November 17, 1865 - James McCune Smith, physician, abolitionist, and author. Smith was born April 18, 1813 in New York City. After graduating from the African Free School, he attempted to attend several American colleges, but was denied admission because of his race. Therefore, he attended the University of Glasgow in Scotland where he graduated at the top of his class with his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1835, his Master of Arts degree in 1836, and a medical degree in 1837. Upon his return to the United States in 1837, Smith became the first African American professionally trained physician in the country. In 1846, Smith was appointed the only doctor for the Free Negro Orphan Asylum where he worked for more than 20 years.

 He also opened what is believed the first black pharmacy in the U.S. Smith was a member of the American Anti-Slavery Society and in 1850 was one of the key organizers of New York’s resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act. Also during the mid-1850s, he helped Frederick Douglass establish the National Council of Colored People.

Smith was a prolific writer whose works include “The Destiny of the People of Color” (1843) and “Ira Aldridge” (1860). He also wrote the introduction to Frederick Douglass’ second autobiography, “My Bondage and My Freedom” (1855), in which he stated “the worst of our institutions, in its worst aspect, cannot keep down energy, truthfulness, and earnest struggle for the right.” In 1863, Smith was appointed professor of anthropology at Wilberforce College, but was too ill to take the position. James McCune Smith School in New York City is named in his honor.

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