Credit: JacJackie4308 via Blogspot

New research shows James McCune Smith stood up for women’s rights in the 19th century

By Emily Menger-Davies

McCune Smith denounced the subjection of working class women to harmful treatments.

New research finds that James McCune Smith, after whom the new “Learning Hub” on campus is named, was not only a medical expert but also an activist, abolitionist, journalist, and supporter of women’s suffrage.

The child of a runaway slave, James McCune Smith became the first African American to receive a medical degree from the University of Glasgow in 1837. The new research carried out by Dr Matthew Daniel Eddy, Professor and Chair in History and Philosophy of Science at Durham University, demonstrates how McCune Smith used his knowledge of medicine and medical statistics to fight injustice on the part of working class women.

Eddy unearthed two articles written by McCune Smith for the London Medical Gazette in which he denounces a senior doctor’s harmful experimental treatment of patients in Glasgow’s Lock Hospital, a charitable institution for women suffering from sexually transmitted diseases. The articles describe how his colleague, Alexander Hannay, was treating women with gonorrhoea with silver nitrate, typically administered at the time only externally and in low concentrations for infected skin tissue or to stop bleeding. However, Hannah was instead administering this internally and in solid form. This caused terrible pain to the patients, some of whom died as a result, with others experiencing miscarriages, but the women’s concerns and requests for alternative treatment were ignored. 

Eddy suggests that Hannay pursued the treatment due to his personal view of the patients – who often were or were assumed to be sex workers – as disposable experimental subjects to further his career. In his articles, McCune Smith used the collection of his own data and its analysis to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the technique and how Hannay and his team had concealed its severity and ineffectualness in their own data. McCune Smith also quoted the women themselves in his articles, choosing to give voice to those who were otherwise ignored.

Alongside the journal articles, Eddy also discovered McCune Smith’s library borrowing record which showed that he had attended the University’s moral philosophy class. Eddy suggests that his attention to medical data for justice outcomes was influenced by his attendance of the class, which encouraged the close analysis of data for moral decision making. 

As Eddy observes, black medical academics’ work has typically not been as “painstakingly preserved as those of their white counterparts”, raising the question of what more there is to be unearthed in archives, and the layers of complex histories yet to be discovered. 


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