James Derham, First African American to Practice Medicine in the U.S.

Because James Derham lived in the late eighteenth century, the information about his is thin. But even with not too much information, his story is clear:

James Derham was born into slavery in Philadelphia. He was owned by three doctors in the area. In one of the households he learned to read and write.

In 1788 he was sold to a prominent surgeon in New Orleans, and the surgeon encouraged Derham to learn medicine. He 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. He would have been a godsend to African-Americans who would not have been allowed to visit a white doctor.

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.

What a tragic loss.

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