Remembering the first African American doctor – a graduate of Glasgow University

A former slave who graduated from a Scottish university to become the first ever African American doctor has been remembered in Glasgow.

  • Full feature in Issue No. 5

James McCune Smith

It is 180 years since James McCune Smith received his medical degree on 27 April 1837 and a earned a place in the history books.

Born into slavery in 1813, but freed by New York State’s Emancipation Act, McCune Smith was recognised as being intellectually gifted at a young age. He attended the African Free School in Manhattan, where he was described as being exceptionally bright, but when he applied for entry to several American universities he was refused admission on account of his race.

However, he was thrown an academic lifeline by the University of Glasgow which offered him a place despite slavery still being in existence in the British Caribbean and racist views still prevalent in the United Kingdom.

McCune Smith jumped at the chance in 1832, especially after members of the free black community in New York rallied around to help raise the funds needed to send him to Glasgow.

The 19-year-old scholar proved to be such an outstanding student during his years at the University of Glasgow that he obtained not one but three degrees – a bachelor’s degree in 1835, a master’s degree in 1836, and his medical doctorate in 1837.

“McCune Smith was born in 1813 in New York city a slave, his mother had been a slave in South Carolina, but he was freed on July 4, 1827, when New York freed all the enslaved people in the state,” said Professor Simon Newman, historian and lead academic on ‘The Runaway Slaves Project’ at the University of Glasgow.

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

However, despite the set backs he turned his attention overseas and was accepted by the University of Glasgow, which ironically was a far better medical school than any of the American ones he had applied to.

“The University of Glasgow received his application and accepted him. The difference between Glasgow and the American universities was that they did not appear to care about his race, and his experiences as a student at Glasgow was remarkably free of racism,” said Professor Newman.

“The only real experience of racism he experienced at Glasgow, which he recorded, was when he went home to America and an American ship’s captain refused him a cabin because they were for whites only. The students and his colleagues and members of the Glasgow Emancipation Society were outraged, so they protested and managed to get him a cabin on the ship.

University of Glasgow records

“Frederick Douglas, another well-known former African American slave and abolitionist, would later say that McCune Smith would “breathe the free air of Scotland”, and it changed him. He began to envisage a world completely different from the one he grew up in, there could be an equality of the races.”

In his addition to the three degrees he obtained over his five years at Glasgow McCune Smith also received a fully rounded classical education. He would read original works in Greek, Latin and French – talents which were reflected in his writing and speeches throughout the rest of his life.

When McCune Smith returned home to New York he set up a medical practice in lower Manhattan serving the black and white poor communities. As a leading intellectual in the city he went on to marry Malvina Barnet, the daughter of one of the richest and influential free black families in New York, and became a leading figure in the New York black community and a national figure.

“His greatest influence was to show that black men and women were not simply defined by slavery and abolitionism,” said Professor Newman.

“This was an age when probably the best know doctor Josiah Nott, who was McCune Smith’s contemporary, was a racist slaveholder who believed that slavery was right, that it was justified by God and was proved by biology. To have someone like McCune Smith as a doctor in New York City, who was publishing a lot more than Josiah Nott, who was probably a much more educated and intelligent man, was an example in itself that could not be emulated by most African Americans. Only his Glasgow education allowed him to do this.”

One comment

  • I found you story of James McCune Smith most interesting; not one I’d heard before. However, although you mention his mother’s racial background no reference at all is made that his father was white which, while not in anyway diminishing his achievements, it does somewhat mislead the reader. In other words he was born into at least some privilege, not in a cabin on ‘slave row.’