James McCune Smith was the first African American to receive a medical doctorate from a university. He dedicated his life to fighting injustice.
James McCune Smith was the first African American to receive a medical doctorate from a university. Born in 1813 to a poor South Carolina runaway slave who had escaped to New York City, he went on to attend Glasgow University during the 1830s. When he returned to America, he became a leading black physician, a tireless abolitionist, activist and journalist.
McCune Smith led an amazing life. He exposed false medical data in the 1840 American census. He supported women’s suffrage alongside the noted feminist Susan B. Anthony. And he wrote the introduction to Frederick Douglass’s sensational 1855 autobiographical slave narrative, My Bondage and My Freedom.
Now, for the first time, my research has revealed that McCune Smith was also the first African American known to be published in a British medical journal – and that he used this platform to reveal a cover-up by an ambitious medical professor who was experimenting on vulnerable women in Glasgow in the 1830s.
I am a historian of science and medicine. I study how people learned scientific skills and I am especially intrigued by the history of how scientists and physicians made discoveries and how that knowledge then circulated between the academy and the public.
One way to track this process is to compare what students learned in educational settings to how they used their scientific training to solve problems and make decisions later in life. My forthcoming book, Media and the Mind, for example, uses school and university notebooks to reconstruct how students historically learned to create, analyse and visualise scientific data in ways that helped them understand the human body and the natural world when they finished their education.
Several years ago, I decided to investigate the history of how the testimony of hospital patients was transformed into scientific data by physicians. I eventually stumbled across the 1837 case of a young Glasgow doctor who sought to expose painful experimental drug trials that had been conducted on the impoverished women of a local hospital.
That doctor was James McCune Smith. He had written articles detailing how the women of a local charity hospital were being subjected to a painful experimental drug. It was a career changing moment for me because I had not encountered this kind of activism in my previous research on medical education.
Who was this doctor? What led him to speak out? Where did he learn to place his knowledge of science and medicine in the service of equality and justice? Upon closer examination, despite his many accomplishments, virtually nothing had been written about McCune Smith’s time in Glasgow or about his work as a practising physician in New York.
Read more: Frederick Douglass: the ex-slave and transatlantic celebrity who found freedom in Newcastle
Like the children of many runaway slaves in New York, McCune Smith grew up in Five Points, Lower Manhattan, one of the poorest and most densely populated urban areas of America at that time. Though the state fully emancipated all former slaves in 1827, when McCune Smith was a teenager, discriminatory educational policies, unsanitary living conditions, chronic illness and infectious diseases ensured that the prospects for a free African American teenager in the early part of the 19th century were limited.
Indeed, in an article entitled Freedom and Slavery for African-Americans, published in the New York Tribune in 1844, McCune Smith observed that only six of the 100 boys who attended school with him from 1826 to 1827 were “still now living”. He noted further that they were “all white”.
Though technically “free”, the lives of African Americans in New York during the 1820s and 1830s were marred by the legacy of slavery and discrimination. Runaway slaves were openly huntedin the city’s alleys, streets and wharves. McCune Smith reflected on these events in an essay that he wrote about the life of his school classmate, Henry Highland Garnet.
An abolitionist and Presbyterian minister, Garnet was the first African American to speak before Congress. McCune Smith recalled the trauma experienced by Garnet’s family in 1829 when they were tracked by slave-hunters. They barely escaped by jumping out of a two-story building and hiding in the house of a local grocer. When they returned to their home they found, in the words of McCune Smith:
The entire household furniture of the family was destroyed or stolen; and they were obliged to start anew in life empty-handed.
Despite many challenges, New York’s African Americans founded their own businesses, churches, political associations, printing presses and more. In addition to receiving support and encouragement from a community of relatives and friends, McCune Smith’s path to becoming a doctor was significantly aided by his education at the African Free School.
Older students were taught penmanship, drawing, grammar, geography, astronomy, natural philosophy and navigation. When American universities denied his medical school applications, the free school community played a role in raising funds for him to attend Glasgow University.
After sailing from New York to Liverpool, McCune Smith arrived in Glasgow in 1832. Thanks to maritime trade, it was one of the largest cities in the country and the university’s medical school was one of the best in Europe.
Britain had prohibited the slave trade in 1807 and it fully abolished slavery the year after his arrival in 1833. Though there were not many African Americans in Glasgow, black writers had been operating in Britain since the 1770s. Then, in 1809 Edinburgh University admitted William Fergusson who was from Jamaica and was the university’s first student of African descent.
Though he took medical courses at the university, Fergusson did not stay to complete a medical doctorate. Instead, he received a license from the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh in 1813. He then practised as a surgeon in the British military and eventually became governor of the then-British colony of Sierra Leone. McCune Smith joined the ranks of these torchbearers and became the first African American known to graduate with a BA, MA and medical doctorate from Glasgow University.
By the time McCune Smith began his studies in Glasgow, opposition to slavery had moved beyond the walls of the university. There was a active abolitionist community and it founded the Glasgow Emancipation Society in 1833. McCune Smith, still only an undergraduate, was one of the founding members. After he graduated, a number of black students attended the university over the course of the century.
Despite living in a foreign country, McCune Smith excelled at his studies and received several academic awards. The Glasgow medical faculty placed equal emphasis on scientific rigour and hands-on clinical experience. In addition to learning chemistry, anatomy and physiology from some of Britain’s leading doctors, he witnessed cutting-edge experiments and new medical technologies being demonstrated in his lectures.
He graduated with honours in 1837 and was immediately given a prestigious clinical residency in Glasgow’s Lock Hospital. He worked there alongside the eminent Scottish obstetrician and gynaecologist, William Cumin, treating women who had contracted venereal diseases.
Missing records and racist medical theories
The difficulty in pursuing a project of this nature is that many of the scientific papers and publications of black physicians have been lost to the sands of time. Unlike the many collections that university libraries have dedicated to preserving the legacy of white doctors who were alumni or donors, there is no “James McCune Smith Medical Collection” where scholars can go to study his medical career and scientific ideas.
No one has yet told the full story of how African Americans like McCune Smith became doctors or how they used their knowledge of medical science to fight injustice and prejudice. The hidden histories of these black physicians based in countries spread around the Atlantic Ocean led me to start my current research project on how they used their scientific training to counter the rise of racist medical theories – theories which erroneously suggested that black bodies were physically different from other bodies and could more easily withstand the stress, pain and labour of enslavement.
Though a number of McCune Smith’s articles were republished several years ago, the whereabouts of his personal medical library, clinical notebooks, patient records, office ledgers and article drafts are unknown. Likewise, his manuscript Glasgow diary and letters have been lost. Though aspects of his career have received attention from historians in recent years, a biography of his extraordinary life has not been written.
This was the situation when I discovered his efforts to expose the harmful drug trials that were being conducted on the women of the Glasgow Lock Hospital. The evidence consisted of two articles that he had published during the spring and summer of 1837 in the London Medical Gazette, a weekly journal with articles about medicine and science.
I originally came upon these articles by reading page after page of medical journals housed in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. When I found them, they immediately stood out because they took the testimony of poor female patients seriously. When I realised that McCune Smith was the first African American to graduate from a Scottish university, I could not believe what I had discovered.
Discovering McCune Smith’s articles was momentous because they are the first currently known to have been published by an African American medical doctor in any scientific journal. Scientists in the 19th century published articles for many reasons. Some wanted to popularise their research in a way that advanced their careers. Others hoped their research would benefit the general public.
The fascinating aspect about McCune Smith’s articles in relation to the historical emergence of the scientific journal is that they were published to expose the unethical misapplication of scientific experiments. This means that they offer new insight into how he learned to combine the power of the press with his medical training to fight inequality and injustice in Britain prior to returning to New York.
The story they tell is extraordinary. The events occurred in the spring and summer of 1837 while McCune Smith was serving in the Glasgow Lock Hospital as a resident physician in gynaecology. The hospital was a charity institution set up by the city for impoverished women suffering from acute venereal diseases such as gonorrhoea and syphilis.[…]
Continue reading: James McCune Smith: new discovery reveals how first African American doctor fought for women’s rights in Glasgow
Professor and Chair in the History and Philosophy of Science, Durham University