James McCune Smith is most well known for being the first African American to hold a medical degree, which only begins to describe his many medical accomplishments. He was born into slavery in 1813 in New York City, and set free through the Emancipation Act of New York when he was fourteen years old. After attending the African Free School #2 in Manhattan, he applied to enter the Geneva Medical College and Columbia University, but was not accepted because of his race. Encouraged by his mentor Rev. Peter Williams, Jr., Smith attended instead the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He graduated at the top of his class.
Smith returned to New York in 1837, and besides being the first African American to receive a medical degree, he was also the first Black person to have his articles published by American medical journals, and he owned and operated the first Black-owned pharmacy in the country. In 1846 he became doctor to the “Colored Orphan Asylum” in New York City, and regularly gave the children smallpox vaccinations to protect them from the deadly disease. He was also active in the abolitionist movement and published lectures for the cause, championing the education and freedom of Black people in America. In the medical realm, he wrote against homeopathy and phrenology, as well as rejecting Thomas Jefferson’s theories of race.
Smith was appointed in 1863 as professor of anthropology at Wilberforce College. Unfortunately, he could not fill the position due to illness, and he passed away in 1865, nineteen days before the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, abolishing slavery in the U.S.