ABOVE PHOTO: Dr. James Derham
Did you know that James Derham was the first African American man to formally practice medicine in the United States even though he never received his M.D. degree? Derham was born into slavery in Philadephia. Throughout his young life, he was owned by several doctors. One of his physician owners, Dr. Bob Love, encouraged him to go into medicine. Derham worked as a nurse, and because of that he was able to purchase his freedom in 1790. (However, some reports vary as to whether he purchased his freedom, or it was given to him.)
Love opened his own medical practice and by the age of 20 his earning had exceeded $3,000. Derham met with the father of American medicine, Dr. Benjamin Rush, and was encouraged to move to Philadelphia. Rush was reported having these words to say 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.” (America Comes Alive)
Derham moved to Philadelphia and began to specialize in throat diseases and the relationship between climate and diseases. Derham was popular as a physician, but he was popular because of his ability to speak French, Spanish and English. Derham practiced medicine until 1801 due to the law in New Orleans that passed regulations in which prevented him from practicing medicine without a formal medical degree. There are no records of him practicing after 1802. Many people continued to believe for decades after Derham that African American people did not know anything about medicine.