Durham University: Pioneering research of first published African American doctor revealed

Nineteenth century doctor James McCune Smith was a pioneer in the use of medical statistics.

He used these to expose a scandal that saw women subjected to a harmful experimental treatment for a sexually transmitted disease.

Statistical evidence
Dr McCune Smith, the son of a runaway slave, travelled from the USA to the UK in 1832 to train at the University Glasgow after being rejected by medical schools in his home country due to his race.

He became the first African American to receive a medical doctorate from a university.

Now research by Professor Matthew Daniel Eddy in our Department of Philosophy has uncovered two papers published by Dr McCune Smith in the spring and summer of 1837 in the weekly journal the London Medical Gazette.

Using statistical evidence and interviews with the affected women Dr McCune Smith revealed the dangerous practices of a senior hospital doctor, Professor Alexander Hannay, who used silver nitrate to treat women for gonorrhoea at Glasgow’s Lock Hospital.

Women treated by Professor Hannay reported painful burning sensations and one suffered a miscarriage. Dr McCune Smith’s research intimates that some patients died after they had received treatment.

Moral philosophy
Working with Robert MacLean, in the University of Glasgow’s Archives and Special Collections, Professor Eddy was able to find Dr McCune Smith’s library borrowing record.

This showed he had taken the University’s moral philosophy class, which encouraged students to judge the accuracy of statistics when making moral decisions.

Professor Eddy believes Dr McCune Smith’s university training at Glasgow fuelled his desire to research and write the papers published in the London Medical Gazette about the experimental treatment of women.

On returning to the USA, Dr McCune Smith set up his own practice in New York and became a leading black physician, a tireless campaigner for the abolition of slavery, an activist and journalist.

In 2021 the University of Glasgow named its new learning hub in his honour.