James McCune Smith, University of Glasgow, public health and moral philosophy, unethical medical experiments, 1840 census, truth (tw slavery, medical abuse, pregnancy loss)

It does seem strange, that scenes which yield the highest delight to our mind, should be suffered to waste their brilliance, for the most part unseen and unappreciated.

Hi, I'm Ana, the Ethical Systems Nerd, with the April 18th episode of Nerd Nodes.

Today is the birthday in 1813 of James McCune Smith, a doctor, statistician, and radical abolitionist who was the first known African American to hold a medical degree.

Smith was born in Manhattan and attended New York African Free School No. 2 on Mulberry Street, standing out even among his extraordinary cohort of fellow students. His mother, Lavinia, had been enslaved, and Smith was emancipated, along with all other remaining enslaved people in New York State, on July 4, 1827, when he was 14 years old, an event pointedly celebrated by the Black community on July 5th. Smith himself would later calculate that twice as many people were illegally sold south prior to this emancipation, than would be freed by it.

Smith worked as a blacksmith's apprentice while studying Latin and Greek to prepare for medical school. He applied to Columbia University, formerly King's College, in New York City, but Columbia would not grant a medical degree to an African-American man until 1908, and Smith was not accepted. One of Smith's tutors, Rev. Peter Williams Jr., advised him to apply to the University of Glasgow, whose medical school dated back to that university's founding in 1451. Smith was accepted and, on August 16, 1832, set sail on the ship Caledonia, bound for Liverpool. In his journal, which survives as it was serialized in the Colored American newspaper, he wrote:

The pure sea-breeze blew bravely over our quarter; the phosphoric gleam of our wake, and the deep, blue vault above, studded with bright stars, that 'are the poetry of heaven', called up emotions which cannot be described.

In Liverpool he would enjoy a welcoming reception, and a visit with Margaret Gill, the wife of his friend and former schoolmate Ira Aldridge, by then a star Shakespearean actor in London, before continuing on to Glasgow.

Smith received one of the best medical educations available in Europe at Glasgow as he earned his BA, MA, and MD degrees over the next 5 years. He already had a stellar classical education from the African Free School. His education at Glasgow would include recent advances in quantitative public health techniques, as well as James Mylne's moral philosophy class, with an emphasis on real world evidence. He then began a prestigious residency at Glasgow's Lock Hospital, a charity hospital for impoverished women, many of whom suffered from what were then called venereal diseases.

While still a resident at Lock, Smith would publicly challenge a senior doctor, Alexander Hannay, on his mistreatment of female patients in the course of Hannay's highly unethical gynecological experiments. Smith gathered data and recorded the personal testimonials of patients, who spoke about the physical pain they endured as well as, in one case, a pregnancy loss. Evidently the early stages of Smith's challenge of Hannay took place in verbal form, and then escalated to written missives in the London Medical Gazette. Smith called out not only Hannay's cruelty, but his falsification of data in trying to make his experiments with silver nitrate look like a success.

While it was no doubt helped by Smith's eventual plans to return to New York, the relative racial openness of British society compared to that in the United States, and support from comrades in various emancipation societies, it is nonetheless hard to overstate the social risk that Smith, a newly fledged resident doctor and a Black man, took in challenging Hannay over the matter of the treatment of socially disposable poor women. All of this took place in the decade prior to the horrific surgical experiments which would be carried out by James Marion Sims on enslaved African American women in the United States, which are still being excused on the grounds that back then, nobody knew any better.

After traveling to Paris to broaden his clinical experience, Smith returned to New York City, established a highly successful private medical practice, got married and started a family, and also worked as the physician for the Colored Orphan Asylum. Smith published in medical journals, but he would never be granted membership into the American Medical Association or any regional medical associations. He would be elected to the American Geographical Society in recognition of his work following the 1840s census, as he debunked interpretations of census data which implied that freedom was dangerous for Black people, and showed that there were greater physical and mental variations within races than between them.

Smith's statistical training, combined with his stunning oratory, would be put to extensive use throughout his life as he practiced his profession and fought for abolition, equal rights, and against the scientific justification of racism, as well as against other forms of pseudoscience. His fundamental faith, although he had no illusions about how long it might take, was that ultimately the scientific, religious, and philosophical truth that all people are one, would "penetrate the hearts of those who oppress us, and give life and sustenance to those long dormant germs of our common humanity"

The preservation of Smith's legacy was complicated by the fact that his children passed into white society, but scholars are paying him new attention, and we can hope that more biographical insights will be found in the years to come.

In 2021, at the University of Glasgow, a new building costing over 90 million pounds with capacity for 2,500 students and with facilities to provide individual study spaces for students without high quality learning spaces at home was opened to the public for the first time. The James McCune Smith Learning Hub opened 208 years after its namesake's birth, a few days after April 18th.

Further Exploration

Further Exploration

Read James McCune Smith's writings. The Destiny of the People of Color, a Lecture and A Lecture on the Haytien Revolution are available online. There is an incredibly expensive collection of his collected writings available from OUP.

Read "Columbia University and Slavery," a website created by faculty, students, and staff to publicly present information about Columbia’s historical connections to the institution of slavery.


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