James Derham (1762-1802?), the first recognized Black physician in the U.S.
James Derham, the first recognized Black physician in the United States, was born a slave in Philadelphia. Owned by a number of physicians, Derham ended up in New Orleans with a Scottish physician who hired him in 1783 to perform medical services. When he turned 21, he bought his freedom, went to New Orleans and established his own medical practice. In 1788, he was invited to Philadelphia to meet Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Rush was so impressed with Derham’s success in treating diphtheria patients that he read Durham’s paper on the subject before the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
In 1789, Durham returned to New Orleans, establishing his legend; he saved more yellow fever victims than any other physician in colonial Philadelphia. During an epidemic that killed thousands, he lost only 11 of 64 patients. He moved back to New Orleans and was lauded by prominent local doctors. Despite his demonstrated expertise and his flourishing practice, his practice was restricted in 1801 by new city regulations because he did not have a formal medical degree and was unable to get formal training. He disappeared after 1802, and his fate was unknown.