27/04/2017
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180th anniversary for James McCune Smith - Runaway Slaves project report

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The remarkable achievements of a man born into slavery who became the first African American to receive  medical degree have been recognised by the University of Glasgow.

James McCune Smith (pictured above), born into slavery in 1813, was thrown an academic lifeline by the University of Glasgow, having been rejected by several American universities on account of his race.

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The University of Glasgow welcomed him and he proved to be such an outstanding student during his years at the University of Glasgow that he obtained not one but three degrees - a bachelor's degree in 1835, a master’s degree in 1836, and his medical doctorate in 1837. 

The story of James McCune Smith

James McCune Smith was born to an enslaved mother and freed by the New York State's Emancipation Act. He attended the African Free School in Manhattan where he was described as being exceptionally bright, but when he applied for entry to several American universities, he was refused admission on account of his race.

Despite slavery still being in existence in the British Caribbean and racist views still prevalent in the United Kingdom, the University of Glasgow stepped in and offered him a place, which he took up in 1832. 

After university, McCune returned home to New York, welcomed as a black intellectual, and set up a medical practice in lower Manhattan serving the black and white poor communities. 

Professor Simon Newman, historian and lead academic on ‘The Runaway Slaves Project’ at the University of Glasgow, said: "His greatest influence was to show that black men and women were not simply defined by slavery and abolitionism. This was an age when probably the best know doctor Josiah Nott, who was McCune Smith’s contemporary, was a racist slaveholder who believed that slavery was right, that it was justified by God and was proved by biology.

"To have someone like McCune Smith as a doctor in New York City, who was publishing a lot more than Josiah Nott, who was probably a much more educated and intelligent man, was an example in itself that could not be emulated by most African Americans. Only his Glasgow education allowed him to do this.”

For more on the Runaway Slaves Project, visit the website.

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