New recognition for first black U.S. doctor with medical degree
■ Dr. James McCune Smith's descendants unveiled a new headstone in a ceremony to commemorate his achievements as a physician, essayist and abolitionist.
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The New York City burial site of the nation's first black medical degree-holder received a new headstone -- one provided by his white descendants in a recent public ceremony.
Dr. James McCune Smith received his medical degree at the University of Glasgow in Scotland in 1837, forced to go overseas for his education due to U.S. colleges' racist admissions policies. Historians say the training provided at European medical schools at that time was, ironically, superior to that offered in the U.S.
Greta Blau, Dr. Smith's great-great-great-granddaughter, learned that she was descended from the doctor after finding his name inscribed in a family Bible. She recognized the name from a history paper she had written years earlier in college.
After confirming the family connection through genealogical research, Blau learned that Dr. Smith's five surviving children passed, lived and identified as white in society after he died in 1865.
Dr. Smith treated both black and white patients in New York City. He was the first black doctor to write a medical case report -- presented to the New York Medical and Surgical Society in 1840.
He also was the first black physician to have a medical scientific paper published, in the New York Journal of Medicine in 1844, and was a prominent essayist who attacked slavery and racial theories positing blacks' inferiority. He was a friend of Frederick Douglass and wrote the introduction to his 1855 autobiography.
Blau located Dr. Smith's burial site at Brooklyn's Cypress Hills Cemetery and was dismayed by what she found -- the headstone had fallen face down and no longer was legible.
"I thought, 'I can't believe this,' " Blau said. "He was good, good friends with Frederick Douglass. He was the first black doctor with a medical degree. I just thought it was really sad that people didn't know about him, except for academics. I felt really compelled to put a new headstone there."
For Dr. Smith, medical practice went hand-in-hand with attention to social conditions, said Vanessa Northington Gamble, MD, PhD, professor of medical humanities and health policy and American studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
"Part of his being a political and social activist was inextricably linked to being a physician," said Dr. Gamble, who spoke at a panel discussion at St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Harlem after the September headstone unveiling ceremony.
"He gave lectures where he criticized theories of black inferiority. He also debunked the 1840 Census that said slaves lived longer and healthier lives than free blacks. ... One of the things he talked about was that he saw race as a social category, not a biological one."
Blau, who lives in New Haven, Conn., said she hopes the new headstone will help make his role in history more widely known.
"They're going to have a tour there now at the cemetery, and people will find out who he was," Blau said. "There are 60 people there who are notable burials, and he's one of them.
"If you do this much in your life, if you're that exceptional, if you've gone through as much as he went through in his life -- you should have some recognition. All I could do was this headstone, so that's what I did."