Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward was the first African American woman to earn a medical doctorate (M.D.) in New York State and the third in the United States. Susan Smith was born to elite Brooklyn parents, Ann Springstead and Sylvanus Smith. She was of mixed European, African, and Shinnecock Indian heritage. Though her early education was musical, Susan Smith entered the New York Medical College for Women in 1867. She earned her M.D. in 1870, graduating as valedictorian. The next year, 1871, she married Reverend William G. McKinney with whom she had two children.
Dr. Smith McKinney’s professional accomplishments were numerous. She established her own private practice in Brooklyn which she ran from 1870 to 1895. During this time she co-founded the Brooklyn Women’s Homeopathic Hospital and Dispensary which served the African American community, completed post-graduate education at the Long Island Medical College Hospital in Brooklyn (1887-1888), practiced at the Brooklyn Home for Aged Colored People where she also served as a board member (1892-1895), and practiced at New York Medical College and Hospital for Women in Manhattan (1892-1896). Dr. Smith McKinney specialized in prenatal care and childhood diseases and gave papers on both these topics.
William G. McKinney died in 1892 and in 1896 Dr. Smith McKinney married Theophilus Gould Steward, an ordained minister and US Army chaplain. She traveled with him for several years throughout the West earning medical licenses in Montana and Wyoming. In 1898, Dr. Smith McKinney Steward was hired by Wilberforce University in Ohio as a resident physician and faculty member to teach health and nutrition. Rev. Steward joined the faculty shortly there after to teach history. She remained at Wilberforce until her death 22 years later.
Dr. Smith McKinney Steward’s activities included local missionary work and women’s suffrage advocacy. She was president of the Brooklyn Women’s Christian Temperance Union (No. 6). She was an accomplished public speaker and in 1911 addressed the first Universal Race Congress at the University of London, UK. Her presentation was entitled “Colored Women in America.” In 1914, she gave a speech, “Women in Medicine,” at the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs Convention.
Dr. Smith McKinney Steward practiced medicine for 48 years. When she died in Brooklyn in 1918, W.E.B. DuBois gave the eulogy at her funeral. Steward was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, one of the first rural cemeteries in the U.S. and internationally known for its architecture, landscaping, and history. In 1974, Brooklyn Junior High School was renamed Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Junior High School in her honor. Two years later, black women physicians in the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut area named their society after her to honor her life and work.