Many thanks to Special Tree's Community Residential Nurse Chevon S. for shining a light on James Derham, an unsung hero in black history believed to be the first African-American to practice medicine in the United States.
Although he never received a medical degree, James Derham (1767-unknown) is believed to be the first African-American to practice medicine in the United States. Born a slave in Pennsylvania, Derham was able to learn to read and was purchased by a number of medical physicians throughout his lifetime. Eventually, he was purchased by a prominent surgeon in New Orleans and, due to his brilliance and aptitude, was encouraged to study medicine. After some time, Derham obtained freedom and began practicing medicine among the local African-American community. In addition to his aptitude for medicine, Derham was quite astute with languages as well, fluently speaking French and Spanish in addition to English. Derham’s reputation as a physician became so renowned that, a prominent physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush, inquired to meet Mr. Derham during a visit to New Orleans. Dr. Rush said of 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.
By 1789, a widespread outbreak of yellow fever plagued the New Orleans population. Mr. Derham emerged as the prominent physician in the region in treating and resolving yellow fever; a feat which nationally certified his reputation as one of the nation’s prominent physicians. Unfortunately, Mr. Derham disappeared in 1802. The details of his death and disappearance, to this day, remain a mystery.
For more information on James Derham