Precolonial Pharmaceutical Advances of African People

Numerous treatments widely utilized today have historical roots in the practices of various ancient African civilizations. Prior to the European colonization of Africa, medical knowledge and practices in regions such as Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa surpassed those in Europe. Noteworthy advancements included the utilization of plants containing salicylic acid for pain relief (akin to aspirin), kaolin for managing diarrhea (similar to Kaopectate), and extracts that demonstrated efficacy in eradicating Gram-positive bacteria, a discovery confirmed in the 20th century. Additionally, certain plant-based remedies from ancient African traditions exhibited anticancer properties, induced abortion, and effectively treated malaria, proving comparable in efficacy to numerous contemporary Western medical treatments.

Reference: Van Sertima, I. “The Lost Sciences of Africa: An Overview.” Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern. 7–26 (1983)

Pharmaceutical Advances of Enslaved Africans

Onesimus, an enslaved West African man, made a crucial contribution to the development of smallpox prevention during a devastating outbreak in Boston in 1721. While Cotton Mather is often credited with introducing variolation (the intentional infection with smallpox pus for immunity) to the American colonies, it was Onesimus who provided him with this knowledge. Variolated against smallpox in West Africa, Onesimus shared the practice of intentionally infecting healthy individuals with small amounts of smallpox pus, a method that built resistance and prevented lethal infections. Onesimus’s insights led to one of the earliest known inoculation campaigns in American history, marking a significant contribution to the development of smallpox prevention methods. Despite a lack of public recognition during his time, Onesimus’s contributions expanded medical knowledge and played a crucial role in mitigating the impact of the smallpox virus.

Reference: How an Enslaved African Man in Boston Helped Save Generations from Smallpox | HISTORY

Dr. James McCune Smith
Dr. James McCune Smith

Dr. James McCune Smith, the first African American to earn a medical degree in the 1830s, not only broke new ground in medicine but also played a significant role in challenging racial injustices. Born enslaved in 1813, Smith received his primary education at the African Free School #2 in New York, where he excelled among notable peers who would later become influential abolitionists.

Despite facing racial barriers, Smith’s determination led him to Glasgow University, a deeply abolitionist institution, where he earned bachelor’s, master’s, and medical degrees in just five years. He was a charter member of the Glasgow Emancipation Society, actively participating in the abolitionist movement. After completing his residency in Paris, Smith returned to the U.S., establishing a medical practice and opening the first black-owned pharmacy at 55 West Broadway in New York.

Smith’s contributions extended beyond conventional medicine. In 1840, he authored the first medical case report by an African American, challenging societal norms. He also addressed pseudoscientific justifications for racial oppression, delivering a lecture titled “The Fallacy of Phrenology” upon his return to the U.S. Smith, having embraced statistical analysis, refuted claims from the 1840 census that emancipated blacks were more prone to vice and pauperism.

His advocacy extended to challenging racial bias within medical societies. Despite facing obstacles, such as being denied the opportunity to present his paper to the New York Medical and Surgical Society, Smith persevered. His paper, “On the Influence of Opium upon the Catamenial Functions,” became the first publication by an African American in a peer-reviewed medical journal. Dr. James McCune Smith’s legacy is characterized by groundbreaking achievements in medicine, the establishment of the first black-owned pharmacy, and a relentless commitment to challenging pseudoscientific justifications for racial inequality. His multifaceted contributions significantly advanced both medical practice and the fight against racial injustice.

References: America’s First Black Physician Sought to Heal a Nation’s Persistent Illness | History| Smithsonian Magazine

The education and medical practice of Dr. James McCune Smith (1813-1865), first black American to hold a medical degree. – PMC (