James Derham was the first African American to practice medicine in the United States.
Born in Philadelphia, Derham started life as a slave. He was owned by three doctors in the area. In one of the households he learned to read and write.
In 1788 he left Philadelphia when he was sold to a prominent surgeon in New Orleans, and the surgeon encouraged Derham to learn medicine. Derham showed great aptitude at helping others, and he also quickly learned the art of surgery.
He either paid for or was given his freedom (reports vary) and was permitted to practice among the freemen and slaves of New Orleans. He was popular for his medical knowledge but also his fluency in speaking French, English, and Spanish. Slaves and African-American freemen were not permitted to consult a white doctor. For those people, Derham would have made a big difference.
Derham Respected by Signer of Declaration of Independence
Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and a well-respected physician of the day, visited New Orleans and was introduced to James Derham. He is quoted as saying about Derham: “I conversed with him on medicine and surgery and found him learned. I thought I could give him information concerning the treatment of disease, but I learned more from him than he could expect from me.” (From the Journal of the National Medical Association, Volume 4, No.1.)
Though James Derham’s skills were well-known and his practice flourished, New Orleans passed regulations in 1801 that prevented him from practicing medicine since he had no formal medical degree.
He disappeared after 1802. Some think he was lynched. Others feel he went elsewhere to practice medicine.
Today African-American doctors and patients are represented by the National Medical Association. They are a leading force for parity in medicine, elimination of health disparities and promotion of optimal health.