Pioneering Doctor Paved Way for Medical Students at MU

Robert J. Smith, MD

For Black History Month, the University of Missouri School of Medicine remembers a trailblazer: Robert J. Smith, MD.

In 1953, Smith became the first African-American to graduate from the MU School of Medicine. At the time, MU offered a two-year medical program. After finishing his work here, Smith completed his MD degree at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1955.

Smith, who died on Feb. 12, 2018, at the age of 88, proudly remembered paving the way for other African-American medical students at MU.

“He definitely represented his alma mater on his car, office wall and even his credit card,” said his son Martin Smith. “You were all definitely very special to him.”

Robert J. Smith, MD
Robert J. Smith, MD

Smith, who was born and raised in Hayti, Missouri, established a practice in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where he became the first board-certified African-American surgeon to practice in Arkansas. He was a prominent civil rights activist and co-founded the Southeast Arkansas Medical Network (SAMN) to promote diversity in health professions. In 1989, he relocated to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where he served as chief of surgery at the VA hospital.

“His work lives on through the countless lives that he touched,” Martin Smith said. “He was a compassionate man with a knack for activism and of course medicine.”

Smith’s legacy also continues at the MU School of Medicine. Because of his passion for education and medicine, he opened the door for many others to pursue their dreams of becoming doctors.