James Derham (ca. 1762-1802?), First Black Physician

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.

To read about women who blazed a trail in the practice of medicine, read about Justina Ford, the first woman doctor in Denver, and Rebecca Lee Crumpler, who wrote the first family medical guide.

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2 thoughts on “James Derham (ca. 1762-1802?), First Black Physician”

  1. Thanks for an excellent article! I agree that all of us, especially youngsters, need to learn about people “who have made a difference and changed the course of history”. (quoting you). And, perhaps the most effective are the everyday heroes amongst us.

  2. Pingback: Black Men In History – James Durham | For Black Families

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