The Remarkable Life of James McCune Smith: First African American to Earn a Medical Degree

The University of Glasgow in Scotland honored one of its remarkable graduates, James McCune Smith, who, in 1837, became the first African American to receive a medical degree.

Born a slave in 1813, McCune gained emancipation when New York state outlawed slavery in 1827. McCune displayed academic prowess at an early age, but when he applied to universities in the United States, they all rejected him because of his color. Undeterred, his community helped him raise money to attend the University of Glasgow in Scotland where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and medical degree.

Upon returning to New York, McCune become a recognized intellectual and set up his own medical practice. He also became friends with the African American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, and wrote the introduction to Douglass’ book, My Bondage and My FreedomWhat he said of Douglass could also apply to McCune himself, “The worst of our institutions, in its worst aspect, cannot keep down energy, truthfulness, and earnest struggle for the right.”

Recognition of McCune’s life comes as part of the ongoing endeavors of the Runaway Slaves Project at the University of Glasgow. The program aims to, “uncover new details about the black population of Scotland and England from 1700-1780.”

Here are a few notable quotes from the university’s tribute:

He was born a slave but would go on to become the first African American to receive a doctorate after being thrown an academic lifeline by a Scottish university.

“He was already attending school by (1827) and was clearly a brilliant pupil, so he applied for medical school several years later at Columbia and other American universities, but was rejected by them all.”

“The free black community in New York mobilised and raised the money to send him.”

Read more at: The Scotsman

Thanks to Rev. Dr. Ligon Duncan, III, Chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary, for alerting me to this story. 

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