This month, we celebrate Black History Month by recognizing the first black male and female physician in our country. Both of these historic physicians challenged prejudices present in the United States to become physicians and care for the underserved.
Dr. James McCune Smith was the first African American to hold a medical degree and to run a pharmacy in the country. He was born into slavery in 1813, emancipated at the age of 14, and later graduated at the top of this class at the University of Glasgow in Scotland after being denied admission to two universities in New York. He practiced for nearly 20 years at the Colored Orphan Asylum in Manhattan until it burned down in 1863 by riots and then moved his practice to Brooklyn for his family’s safety. He is most well-known for his work as an abolitionist and Frederick Douglass has called Smith “the single most important influence on his life.”
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler graduated in 1864 from the New England Female Medical College in Boston after working as a nurse for a number of years. She practiced in Boston, Massachusetts and later Richmond, Virginia, primarily caring for poor African-American women and children. She also worked for the Freedman’s Bureau to provide medical care to freed slaves who were denied care by white physicians. She authored “Book of Medical Disclosures,” which was formed from the notes she kept throughout her medical career. Her book is one of the very first medical publications by an African American.