Science, Inventions, Medicine, and Aerospace


Who was the first African American to receive a medical degree?

James McCune Smith (1811–1865) was the first black to obtain a medical degree, in 1837. Born in New York City, he studied at the African Free School in New York, where he was so gifted a student that when Lafayette visited the United States in 1824, the young Smith delivered the welcome address. Unable to pursue his education in the United States because no college was open to him, Smith studied at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, where he received his bachelor’s, master’s, and medical degrees. He was a very successful physician in New York, with a busy practice and two pharmacies where he trained several black pharmacists. Sometimes Smith was accused of elitism and snobbery because of his wealth and his mansion on Sixth Avenue. He served on the staff of the Free Negro Orphan Asylum for twenty years. An avid abolitionist, he supported the Underground Railroad and was especially involved in the movement for black manhood suffrage in the state. Smith and Henry Highland Garnet (1815–1882) argued before the state legislature in 1841, demanding the removal of restrictions to black manhood suffrage. Smith also supported women’s suffrage, calling for a state women’s rights convention to be held in Rochester. Prominent in education and journalism as well, in 1838 he assumed editorial responsibility for the Colored American. He resigned in June 1839 and became an unpaid columnist for Frederick Douglass’ paper. In 1859 he launched the Weekly Anglo-American, a short-lived publication.


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