Dr. James Derham is recognized as being the first Black physician in the United States. Born a slave in Philadelphia, Derham was owned by several doctors. In 1783, he ended up living in New Orleans with a Scottish physician who hired him to perform medical services. At the age of 21, Derham had saved enough money to purchase his freedom, move to New Orleans, and set up his own medical practice.
In 1788, Derham was invited to Philadelphia to meet with Dr. Benjamin Rush, was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Rush, who was very impressed by Derham’s success in treating diphtheria patients, is quoted as saying: “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.). Rush also read Derham’s paper on the subject before the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
In 1789, Derham returned to New Orleans, where he saved more patients with yellow fever than any other physician in colonial Philadelphia. In New Orleans, Derham was lauded by prominent local doctors. During an epidemic that killed thousands of people, the young Black doctor managed to save 53 out of 64 patients. However, although he had proved himself to be an outstanding physician, his practice was restricted by new city regulations established in 1801 because he did not have a formal degree in medicine.
Derham was last seen in 1802. Unfortunately, the belief that Black people were incapable of learning about medicine, lasted for decades after his disappearance.
Journal of the National Medical Association, Volume 4, No.1.
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