The New York Academy of Medicine is honoring a Manhattan doctor who was discriminated against more than 150 years ago, NY1 exclusively reports, hoping to right a historic wrong.
His name was Dr. James McCune Smith. Born in New York in 1813, he came of age in a divided nation that was still half-slave and half-free. When no college would admit him, McCune Smith went to Europe and got his degrees from the University of Glasgow in Scotland.
Joanne Edey Rhodes, Africana professor of Hunter College, said it was a daring move. "He could've been kidnapped," she said. "You really took a chance."
Dr. Judy Salerno, the president of the New York Academy of Medicine, said she learned about McCune Smith's story a few months ago.
"He was a very accomplished person academically, intellectually," Salerno said. "He was a pharmacist, a scientist, a physician."
He was also an abolitionist who befriended fellow freedom fighter, Frederick Douglass. When Dr. McCune Smith returned to lower Manhattan, he started a medical practice and became a respected leader in the community. So much so that he was invited to join a new society: The New York Academy of Medicine.
But in 1847, some members were nervous about admitting him as a resident fellow because he was black.
Entries in the 1847 minute book tell the whole story: The Academy initially tried to get Dr. McCune Smith to withdraw his application.
"They don't want to grant him fellowship," Historical Collections Librarian Arlene Shaner said as she read from the minute book. "and they don't really want to say why that is."
Dr. McCune Smith stood his ground, and instead the Academy simply withheld his application indefinitely.
"To me, that was somewhat worse than actually denying him fellowship; not owning up to the fact that he wasn't deserving, because he was," Salerno said.
On Thursday, a historic event will take place in the halls of the Academy. 171 years after being discriminated against, Dr. James McCune Smith will be awarded a Special Posthumous Award of Academy Fellowship, a replica of the certificate that was given out in 1847. In addition, a seat will forever bear his name.
"Time's up. It's about time we've moved on," Salerno said. "We can correct the wrongs that were done in the past."
"I don't know if you could ever make up for the pain and suffering that somebody went through," Joanne Edey Rhodes said. "But I am very pleased that the New York Academy of Medicine would think to honor him."
And a portrait of the trailblazing physician will also be on permanent display.
"I intend to get up there on November 1," Salerno said. "before all of our members, and tell the history of what happened 171 years ago, and to give him the honor he so deeply deserved back then."