He opened what is known to be the first African American pharmacy in the United States. His pharmacy was located on 93 West Broadway Street in New York City. It was later described as a place where many escaping slaves found assistance. James McCune Smith was the first African American to earn a medical degree and practice medicine in the United States.
Smith was born on April 18, 1813, in New York City in the midst of The War of 1812. His parents were former slaves. New York’s Emancipation Act helped free his father. His mother had to work her way out of slavery. Slavery was abolished in New York when Smith was fourteen years old.
Smith attended the African Free School in New York City. He was mentored and tutored by Rev. Peter Williams, Jr., an Episcopalian minister at St. Joseph’s Church. Rev. Williams was a former graduate of the African Free School. Smith was an exceptionally bright student at the African Free School. He was one student out of many chosen to deliver a speech to the aged Revolutionary War hero, General Lafayette, in 1824.
When Smith graduated, he knew right away that he wanted to become a doctor. He applied to Kings College, now known as Columbia College, but was denied admission. He applied to several American colleges, but was continuously denied admission by each of them due to the blatant racial discrimination that existed in the 1900’s.
Rev. Peter Williams suggested that Smith attend the University of Glasgow, at that time a world’s best medical schools, located in Scotland, England. Rev. Williams helped Smith raise money for his trip. The University of Glasgow accepted Smith. He was able to study in Scotland. Race discrimination wasn’t as prevalent as it was in the United States.
Smith graduated in 1835 at the top of his class and obtained a bachelor’s degree. The following year he earned a master’s degree. He received his medical degree in 1837. Then he traveled to Paris to complete an internship. Upon his return to the United States, he gave many speeches including one at the American Anti-Slavery Society. His speech was a report on the status of the abolition movement in Europe.
Dr. Smith began to practice medicine in New York and opened a pharmacy. He was the first African American licensed to practice medicine and his pharmacy would be a first in the United States owned and operated by an African American. He practiced medicine for 25 years, primarily at the Free Negro Orphan Asylum.
Dr. Smith was a prolific writer and essayist. He wrote an essay objecting a minister’s claim that slaves in the South were more content than free blacks in the North. He also applied his medical knowledge to counter assertions about black health and insanity He was one of the key organizers of New York’s resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act. Smith worked with Frederick Douglass to establish the National Council of the Colored People (NAACP).
In 1863, Dr. Smith was offered a job at Wilberforce University in Ohio, as professor of anthropology. Dr. Smith had been feeling ill and was unable to accept the position at the university. In 1865, just nineteen days before the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, Dr Smith died of congestive heart failure in New York at the age of 52. He was survived by his wife, Malvina, and his five children. He was buried at Cypress Hills Cemetery, in Brooklyn, New York.