James McCune Smith: nation’s first professionally trained African-American doctor


James McCune Smith
James McCune Smith.jpg

Inscription: “First regularly-educated Colored Physician in the United States.
Born 18 April 1813
New York City, New York, United States
Died 17 November 1865 (aged 52)
Long Island, New York, United States
Fields Internal medicine
Institutions Free Negro Orphan Asylum
Wilberforce College
Alma mater African Free School
Glasgow University


James McCune Smith (April 18, 1813 – November 17, 1865) was an American physician, apothecary, abolitionist, and author. He is the first African American to hold a medical degree and graduated at the top in his class at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. He was the first African American to run a pharmacy in the United States.

In addition to practicing as a doctor for nearly 20 years at the Colored Orphan Asylum in Manhattan, Smith was a public intellectual: he contributed articles to medical journals, participated in learned societies, and wrote numerous essays and articles drawing from his medical and statistical training. He used his training in medicine and statistics to refute common misconceptions about race, intelligence, medicine, and society in general. Invited as a founding member of the New York Statistics Society in 1852, which promoted a new science, he was elected as a member in 1854 of the recently founded American Geographic Society. But, he was never admitted to the American Medical Association or local medical associations.

He has been most well known for his leadership as an abolitionist; a member of the American Anti-Slavery Society, with Frederick Douglass he helped start the National Council of Colored People in 1853, the first permanent national organization for blacks. Douglass said that Smith was “the single most important influence on his life.” Smith was one of the Committee of Thirteen, who organized in 1850 in New York City to resist the newly passedFugitive Slave Law by aiding fugitive slaves through theUnderground Railroad. Other leading abolitionist activists were among his friends and colleagues. From the 1840s, he lectured on race and abolitionism and wrote numerous articles to refute racist ideas about black capacities.

Both Smith and his wife were of mixed-race African and European ancestry. As he became economically successful, he built a house in a good neighborhood; in the 1860 census he and his family were classified in that neighborhood as white, whereas in 1850 they were classified as mulatto. He served for nearly 20 years as the doctor at the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York but, after it was burned down in July 1863 by a mob in the New York Draft Riots, in which nearly 100 blacks died, Smith moved his family and practice out to Brooklyn for safety. The parents stressed education for their children. In the 1870 census, his widow and children continued to be classified as white. To escape racial discrimination, his children passed into white society: the four surviving sons married white spouses; his unmarried daughter lived with a brother. They worked as teachers, a lawyer, and business people.

Smith’s unique achievements as a pioneering African-American doctor were rediscovered by twentieth-century historians. They were relearned by his descendants in the twenty-first century when a three-times-great-granddaughter took a history class and found his name in her grandmother’s family bible. In 2010, several Smith descendants commissioned a new tombstone for his grave in Brooklyn. They gathered to honor him and their African-American ancestry.

Early life and education

Smith was born free in 1813 in New York City (New York state had passed gradual abolition in 1799; children of slave mothers were born free but had to serve an indenture until early adulthood.) His mother, believed to be Lavinia Smith, achieved her freedom later in life; she said she was a “self-emancipated woman.” She was born into slavery in South Carolina and had been brought to New York as a slave. His father was Samuel Smith, a white merchant and his mother’s master, who had brought her with him to New York from South Carolina. 

The boy grew up only with his mother. As an adult, James Smith alluded to other white ancestry through his mother’s family, saying he had kin in the South, some of whom were slaveholders and others slaves. 

Smith attended the African Free School (AFS) #2 on Mulberry Street in Manhattan, where he was described as an “exceptionally bright student”. He was among numerous boys who went on to have brilliant careers, some of whom he worked with in the abolitionist cause. In the course of his studies, Smith was tutored by Rev. Peter Williams, Jr., a graduate of the African Free School who had been ordained in 1826 as the second African-American priest in the Episcopal Church. {Williams had founded St. Philip’s African Church in New York City.} Upon graduation, Smith applied to Columbia University and Geneva Medical College in New York State, but was denied admission due to racial discrimination.

Williams encouraged Smith to attend the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He and abolitionist benefactors of the AFS provided Smith with money for his trip overseas and his education. Smith kept a journal of his sea voyage that expressed his sense of mission. After arriving in Liverpool and walking along the waterfront, he thought, “I am free!” Through abolitionist connections, he was welcomed there by members of the London Agency Anti-Slavery Society. According to the historian Thomas M. Morgan, Smith enjoyed the relative racial tolerance in Scotland and England, which officially abolished slavery in 1833. (New York had finally abolished all slavery in 1826.  He studied and graduated at the top of his class. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1835, amaster’s degree in 1836, and a medical degree in 1837. He also completed an internship in Paris.

Marriage and family

After his return to New York and getting established, in the early 1840s Smith married Malvina Barnet (c.1825 – ), afree woman of color who was a graduate of the Rutger Female Institute. They had seven children and five survived to adulthood:

  • James W., born 1845, became a teacher; he married and had an independent household by 1870. 
  • Henry M., (1847 – d. before 1860) 
  • Amy G. (c.1848-1849 – d. December 1849) 
  • Mary (also called Maude), born c.1855-56; never married; became a teacher and was living with her widowed brother Donald in 1900 in Queens. (Note: In the 1900 census, her birth was reported as September 1842, but this is not consistent with her age in the 1860 and 1870 censuses, and she did not appear in the 1850 census. )
  • Donald (1858 – ), became a lawyer, married and was a widower by 1900, living in Queens. His household included his older sister Maude and two siblings of his late wife: his widowed brother-in-law Edward, a physician born in England, and sister-in-law Emma Callaghan, an unmarried teacher. 
  • John M., (b. February 1860 -),  worked in Florida in an orange grove in the 1880s, per the Florida 1885 census. He married in 1888, and their three children were born in Florida.  By 1900 had returned with his family to Brooklyn, where he worked as a printer. 
  • Guy B., born 1862, first worked as a seaman. By 1900, he was married with several children and worked as a salesman. His youngest daughter was named Antoinette.

In 1850, the senior Smith’s household included four older women: Lavinia Smith, age 67 (his mother: b. c.1783 – d. bet.1860-1870), born in South Carolina and listed first as head of household; Sarah Williams, 57; Amelia Jones, 47; and Mary Hewlitt, 53, who were likely relatives or friends. By then Smith and his wife Malvina had three children: James, Henry and Amy. Each member of the household was classified as mulatto (or of mixed ancestry), and all but Lavinia Smith were born in New York. They lived in a mixed neighborhood in the Fifth Ward; in the census, nearly all other neighbors on the page were classified as white; many were immigrants from England, Ireland, and France.

By 1860, Smith was doing very well; he had moved to Leonard Street within the Fifth Ward and had a mansion built by white workmen. His total real property was worth $25,000.  His household included a live-in servant, Catherine Grelis from Ireland. Listed as a separate household at his address were Sara D. Williams, 57, and Mary Hertell (should be Hewlitt, as above), 50. (These were likely the same Sara and Mary as in the 1850 census, although their ages did not change.) No one on this census page had a racial designation. By the conventions of the time, this means that they were classified as white by the census enumerator; totals of white persons only are given at the bottom of the page. 

After the 1863 draft riots, Smith and his family were among prominent blacks who left New York and moved to Brooklyn, then still a separate city. He no longer felt safe in his old neighborhood. In the 1870 census, Malvina and her four children were living in Ward 15, Brooklyn. All were listed as white. James W. Smith, who had married a white woman, was living in a separate household and working as a teacher; he was also classified as white. The Smith children still at home were Maud, 15; Donald, 12; John, 10; and Guy, 8; all were attending school. 

Five Smith children survived to adulthood: James, Maud, Donald, John and Guy.  The men married white spouses, but Maud never married. All were classified as white from 1860 on. 



When he returned to New York City in 1837 with his degrees, Smith was greeted as a hero by the black community. He said at a gathering, “I have striven to obtain education, at every sacrifice and every hazard, and to apply such education to the good of our common country.” He was the first university-trained African-Americanphysician in the United States. During his practice of 25 years, he was also the first black to have articles published in American medical journals, but he was never admitted to the American Medical Association or local ones. 

He established his practice in Lower Manhattan in general surgery and medicine, treating both black and white patients. He also started a school in the evenings, teaching children.  He established what has been called the first black-owned and operated pharmacy in the United States, located at 93 West Broadway (near Foley Square today). His friends and activists gathered in the back room of the pharmacy to discuss issues related to their work in abolitionism. 

In 1846, Smith was appointed as the only doctor of the Colored Orphan Asylum (also known as the Free Negro Orphan Asylum), at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue. (Before that time, the directors had depended on pro bonoservices of doctors.) He worked there for nearly 20 years. The asylum was founded in 1836 by Anna and Hannah Shotwell and Mary Murray, Quaker philanthropists in New York. Trying to protect the children, Smith regularly gave vaccinations for smallpox. Leading causes of death were infectious diseases: measles (for which there was no vaccine), smallpox and tuberculosis (for which there was no antibiotic at the time).  In addition to caring for orphans, the home sometimes boarded children temporarily when their parents were unable to support them, as jobs were scarce for free blacks in New York. Waves of immigration from Ireland and Germany in the 1840s and 1850s meant there were many new immigrants competing for work. 

Smith was always working for the asylum. In July 1852, he presented the trustees with 5,000 acres provided by his friend Gerrit Smith, a wealthy white abolitionist. The land was to be held in trust and later sold for benefit of the orphans. 

In July 1863, during the three-day New York Draft Riots, in which most participants were ethnic Irish, rioters attacked and burned down the orphan asylum. The children were saved by the staff and Union troops in the city. During its nearly 30 years, the orphan asylum had admitted 1310 children, and typically had about 200 in residence at a time. After the riots, Smith moved his family and business out of Manhattan, as did other prominent blacks. Numerous buildings were destroyed in their old neighborhoods, and estimates were that 100 blacks were killed in the rioting. No longer feeling safe in the lower Fourth Ward, the Smiths moved toWilliamsburg, Brooklyn. 

Abolitionist movement

While in Scotland, Smith joined the Glasgow Emancipation Society and met people in the Scottish and English abolitionist movement. In 1833 Great Britain abolished slavery. When Smith returned to New York, he quickly joined the American Anti-Slavery Society and worked for the cause in the United States. He worked effectively with both black and white abolitionists, for instance maintaining a friendship and correspondence with Gerrit Smiththat spanned the years from 1846-1865. 

Publishing articles quickly brought him to the attention of the national abolitionist movement. His “Destiny of the People of Color”, “Freedom and Slavery for Africans”, and “A lecture on the Haytien Revolution; with a note on Toussaint L’Ouverture”, established him as a new force in the field. He directed the Colored People’s Educational Movement (to the Memory of Abraham Lincoln).

In 1850 as a member of the Committee of Thirteen, Smith was one of the key organizers of resistance in New York City to the newly passed Fugitive Slave Act, which required states to aid federal law enforcement in capturing escaped slaves. As did similar groups in Boston, his committee aided fugitive slaves to escape capture and helped connect them to people of the Underground Railroad and other escape routes.

During the mid-1850s, Smith worked with Frederick Douglass to establish the National Council of Colored People, one of the first permanent black national organizations, beginning with a three-day convention in Rochester, New York. At the Convention in Rochester, he and Frederick Douglass emphasized the importance of education for their race and urged the founding of more schools for black youth. Smith wanted choices available for both industrial and classical education.  Douglass valued his rational approach and said that Smith was “the single most important influence on his life.” Smith tempered the more radical people in the abolitionist movement and insisted on arguing from facts and analysis. He wrote a regular column in Douglass’ paper, published under the pseudonym, ‘Communipaw.’ 

Opposing the emigration of American free blacks to other countries, Smith believed that native-born Americans had the right to live in the United States and a claim by their labor and birth to their land. He gathered supporters to go to Albany and testify to the state legislature against proposed plans to support the American Colonization Society, which had supported sending free blacks to the colony of Liberia in Africa. Smith contributed money to revive the Weekly Anglo-African in 1861, as an anti-emigrationist newspaper. His own writings were important for refuting commonly held racist assumptions of the time, as noted below.

Professional associations and writings

Smith was a prolific writer and essayist. The historian John Stauffer of Harvard University says: “He was one of the leaders within the movement to abolish slavery, and he was one of the most original and innovative writers of his time.” 

In 1840 he wrote the first case report by a black doctor, which his associate John Watson read at a meeting of the New York Medical and Surgical Society. (It acknowledged Smith was qualified, but would not admit him because of racial discrimination.) Soon after, Smith published an article in the New York Journal of Medicine, the first by a black doctor in the US. 

He drew from his medical training to discredit popular ideas about differences among the races. In 1843 he gave a lecture series, Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of the Races, to demonstrate the failings of phrenology, which was a so-called scientific practice of the time that was applied in a way to draw racist conclusions and attribute negative characteristics to ethnic Africans.  He rejected the practice of homeopathy, an alternative to the scientific medicine being taught in universities. Although he had a successful medical career, he was not admitted to the American Medical Association or local associations because of racial discrimination. 

At Glasgow, Smith had been trained in the emerging science of statistics. He published numerous articles applying his statistical training. For example, he used statistics to refute the arguments of slave owners, who wrote that blacks were inferior and that slaves were better off than free blacks or white urban laborers. To do this, he drew up statistical tables of data from the census.

When John C. Calhoun, then US Secretary of State and former US Senator from South Carolina, claimed that freedom was bad for blacks, and that the 1840 U.S. Census showed that blacks in the North had high rates of insanity and mortality, Smith responded with a masterful paper. In “A Dissertation on the Influence of Climate on Longevity” (1846), published in Hunt’s Merchants’ Magazine, Smith analyzed the census both to refute Calhoun’s conclusions and to show the correct way to analyze data. He showed that blacks in the North lived longer than slaves, attended church more, and were achieving scholastically at a rate similar to whites.[

As Smith started publishing, his work was quickly accepted by newer scientific organizations: in 1852 Smith was invited to be a founding member of the New York Statistics Institute. In 1854 he was elected as a member by the American Geographical Society (founded in New York in 1851 by top scientists as well as wealthy amateurs interested in exploration). The Society recognized him by giving him an award for one of his articles. He also joined the New-York Historical Society. 

Among numerous other works supporting abolitionism and dealing with issues related to race, Smith is well known for his introduction to Frederick Douglass’ second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). It expressed the new independence in African-American accounts of slavery, compared to earlier works, which had to seek approval for authentication from white abolitionists, as readers rejected some of the harsh accounts of conditions under slavery. Smith wrote:

…the worst of our institutions, in its worst aspect, cannot keep down energy, truthfulness, and earnest struggle for the right. 

In 1859 he published an article using scientific findings and analysis to refute the former president Thomas Jefferson’s theories of race, as expressed in his well-known Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble, a medical doctor and historian at George Washington University, in 2010 noted, “As early as 1859, Dr. McCune Smith said that race was not biological but was a social category.” He also commented on the positive ways that ethnic Africans would influence US culture and society, in music, dance, food, and other elements. His collected essays, speeches and letters have been published as The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist (2006), edited by John Stauffer. 

Later years

In 1863 Smith was appointed as professor of anthropology at Wilberforce College, Ohio. It was founded in a collaboration between the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME Church) and the Methodist Church of Cincinnati as a college for students of color before the American Civil War. By 1860, it had numerous mixed-racestudents from the South, whose tuition was paid by their wealthy white planter fathers.[30] The war caused the withdrawal of most southern students, threatening survival of the school. In 1863 the college was purchased by the AME Church and established as the first African American-owned and operated college in the United States.

At the time, Smith was too ill to take the position. He died two years later on November 17, 1865 of congestive heart failure on Long Island, New York at the age of 52. This was nineteen days before ratification of theThirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which abolished slavery throughout the country. He was buried at Cypress Hills Cemetery, in Brooklyn. Smith was survived by his widow, Malvina, and five children. 

In 1870 the Smiths were again all classified as white on the census. James Smith Jr. had married a white woman and had children. His siblings also would marry white spouses and have families. Because of trying to escape racial prejudice, it appeared that they did not pass on the stories about their father’s achievements, as later generations did not learn of them. It was not until the twenty-first century that a connection was made again, and his descendants learned of some of their African-American ancestors.

Legacy and honors

Gradually Smith’s achievements were forgotten within the family, as his sons worked to escape racial prejudice in New York and did not discuss their African-American ancestry.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, the expansion of research on minorities has led to articles being published on Smith as the first African American with a medical degree. Later descendants did not learn of their ethnic African ancestry and Smith’s unique contributions until Greta Blau, Smith’s 3xgreat-granddaughter, took a course in the early 21st century on the history of blacks in New York, which included information on him. Afterward she saw James McCune Smith’s name in the family bible held by her grandmother Antoinette Martignoni (a descendant of Guy B. Smith, James’ youngest son), and remembered it from class. Investigation proved the family connection.  Martignoni and Blau contacted other descendants to inform them of the discovery.

  • In September 2010, Blau and other Smith descendants gathered to dedicate a new tombstone to mark Smith’s grave at Cypress Hills Cemetery and to honor his work.




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