I spent many years at Glasgow University; six years as an undergraduate learning medicine and a further decade later on when I worked as a lecturer in the medical faculty. During this time, I learnt about many of the illustrious ex-alumni such as Joseph Lister, Tobias Smollett, William Hunter and A.J. Cronin to name a few. However, to my shame, I did not until recently know the name of perhaps one of its most important sons – James McCune Smith (1813-1865). If the University can be proud of any part of its heritage its role in this gentleman’s education is one it should cherish.
James McCune Smith was born in slavery but was emancipated at the age of 14. Despite this emancipation no University in America would take this intelligent young man as a student because he was black, and his emancipation didn’t mean the end of racial discrimination. Being exceptionally bright the African Free School in New York and Abolitionist societies in Britain arranged to pay for his transport and education in Glasgow University. His promise was confirmed when he graduated at the top of his class and graduated with degrees in 1835, 1836 and 1837.
He was the first African-American to obtain a medical degree. He undertook his internship in Paris before returning to America to set up practice in lower Manhattan and work as the resident physician at the ‘Colored Orphan Asylum‘. He was a prolific writer and active in political circles. Indeed, Frederick Douglass described him as “the single most important influence” on his life and another commentator at the time noted “As the learned physician-scholar of the abolition movement, Smith was instrumental in making the overthrow of slavery credible and successful“. He was the first black man to have an articles published in American medical journals and he established the first black owned and run pharmacy in the United States. Despite all his success no New York Medical association, nor the American Medical Association, would accept him as a member because of his race. Racial discrimination followed him, despite the many successes of the abolitionist and emancipation societies over the years, and he was buried in an unmarked grave by his pale-skinned children to escape racial prejudice.
Glasgow University is to open a new learning hub building and intend to name it in James McCune Smith’s honour. It is about time. Hopefully future doctors in training won’t remain as shamefully ignorant, as I was, about the history of one of our most important colleagues.