James Derham (or Durham) is one of history’s first and one of history’s mysteries. He holds the distinction of being the Black person to officially practice medicine in the U.S. What also stands out about this is that he never received a medical degree.
Entering the Medical Field
On that note, it wasn’t unusual for people to practice important jobs without formal or classical training prior to the 20th century. Apprenticeships were a major way of passing on skills to those who couldn’t or didn’t receive training or education in a university or college.
Born a slave on May 2, 1762, he was born and raised in Philadelphia. His owners included a number of doctors. One owner, Dr. Bob Love of New Orleans pushed for Derham to pursue the medical field. In serving as a nurse, James Derham was making over $3,000 a year at 20 years old. Before 30, he was able to purchase his freedom in 1790.
Afterward, Derham established his own practice in New Orleans. It was via a meeting with founding father and medical pioneer Dr. Benjamin Rush when Derham was encouraged to move back to Philadelphia. He would focus his studies and work on throat diseases. Derham’s findings would help in discovering how climate relates to throat-related illnesses.
By 1802, James Derham simply disappears from history. Nothing else is known about him or what became of his practice.