McCune Smith inspires next generation of researchers

Published: 12 March 2020

American Institute of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation PhD student Kristyn Carter has told how she was inspired to study at the University of Glasgow by the story of Dr James McCune Smith.

James McCune Smith building graphic

Institute of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation PhD student Kristyn Carter has told how she moved to Glasgow from the United States of America to study because she was inspired by the story of Dr James McCune Smith.

McCune Smith, in whose honour the new £90.6 million learning and teaching hub, which is opening in September, will be named, was the first African American to achieve a medical degree, graduating from the University of Glasgow in 1837. 

McCune Smith was born into slavery in 1813 before he was freed by New York State's Emancipation Act on 4 July 1827.

Recognised as being intellectually gifted, he attended the African Free School in Manhattan, where his academic achievements led him to apply to several American universities.

After being denied entry to all due to his race, McCune Smith applied for – and was accepted by – the University of Glasgow’s medical school.

McCune Smith went on to gain three qualifications here: a bachelor's degree in 1835, a master’s degree in 1836, and his medical doctorate in 1837.

Upon returning to New York, he set up a medical practice in lower Manhattan and grew to be recognised as a prominent figure in New York's black community and a leading intellectual.‌

Coming across his story in Harriet Washington’s book, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, Kristyn was inspired by his perseverance and pursuit of education. 

Following in the footsteps of Dr McCune Smith, Kristyn applied to the University of Glasgow and was accepted into a Masters in Immunology.

Having achieved her masters, she now works in a PhD position, researching Dupuytren's disease and the underlying immune mechanisms of soft tissue diseases, and is well on her way to achieving her ambition of becoming an orthopaedic surgeon.

Kristyn said: “Coming from the States, unfortunately there aren’t a lot of black, or even black female physicians. I came across Harriet Washington’s book, Medical Apartheid, and learned about Dr McCune Smith’s story.

"Hearing about his story, being born into slavery, defeating that in a way, and travelling here to pursue education I thought if he can do that, I can do anything!”

Clinical Senior Lecturer in Immunology Dr Neal Millar added: "I am very proud to have Kristyn as my PhD student investigating immune mechanisms in soft tissue diseases.

"We will make sure she follows in the footsteps of her inspiration Dr James McCune Smith and reaches her goal of becoming a female academic orthopaedic surgeon - an area that distinctly lacks female and minorities in leading roles."

First published: 12 March 2020