Dr. James Durham has been widely acknowledged as the first recognized African American to practice medicine in the United States. Though he was never formally trained as a doctor, he had a real dedication to medicine.
James Durham was born a slave in Philadelphia but was one of the fortunate few who was taught to read and write by his masters. Throughout his young life, he was owned by several doctors. So it was only normal for him to pick up on the practice of medicine. He was eventually bought by a Scottish physician in New Orleans who encouraged him to further explore his interest in the field. Derham worked as a nurse, and eventually, he started performing medical services on his own.
Sometime in the late 1780s, Derham earned his freedom (whether he purchased it or his master willingly bestowed it on him, nobody knows) and began working as a doctor for free black people and slaves in the New Orleans area. By 1789, his practice is reported to have made about $3,000 annually.
Derham quickly earned a reputation as a remarkable physician, and in 1788 he was even recognized by Dr. Benjamin Rush. During the yellow fever epidemic of 1789, Derham successfully treated all but 11 of his 64 patients – an extremely successful ratio given the era and mortality rate of this disease.
Rush said of Derham, “I have conversed with him upon most of the most acute and epidemic diseases of the country where he lives and was pleased to find him perfectly acquainted with the modern simple mode of practice on these diseases. I expected to have to suggest some new medicines to him but he suggested many more to me.”
Unfortunately, new laws passed in 1801 required doctors to have earned a degree; this restricted Derham from continuing his practice, since he did not have one. Derham disappeared in 1802, and his fate from that time forward is unknown. Despite his influence being cut short by the new law, Derham remains a source of inspiration and he is still recognized as the first African American to practice medicine in the United States.