James Derham was born into slavery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Derham was the first recognized Black physician in the United States. While still a young boy Derham was sold to Dr. John Kearsley Jr., who specialized in “Sore Throat”, the same specialty Derham would later follow. Kearsley introduced Derham to medicine by teaching him the principles of pharmacy and allowing Derham to assist with the treatment of his patients. Dr. Kearsley also taught Derham how to read and write and speak other languages. It was said that Derham spoke fluently English, French, and Spanish.
When Derham was 15 years old, Dr. Kearsley died. After Kearsley death Derham passed through the hands of several masters, ending up with an Dr. George West, a surgeon of the 16th British Regiment, under whom Derham continued his medical training. At the end of the Revolutionary War, Derham was sold once more this time to an Scottish physician in New Orleans Dr. Robert Dow.
Dr.Dow realized that Derham showed Marvelous aptitude in the art of surgery. Dr. Dow had not only continue Derham medical training, but became a genuine friend as well. In 1783 when Derham was 21 years old, Dr. Dow freed him for the cash sum of five-hundred pesos, in which Derham paid in full.
Derham commenced his own practice in New Orleans. He married at the age twenty-six and he was reportedly making the equivalent of $3,000 a year. Derham specialized in throat disease. It was said that Derham had patients of both races.
Dr.Benjamin Rush one of the nesters of medicine in America and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, heard about an African American doctor in New Orleans, who was excellent at curing throats and very known for being one of the best doctors in New Orleans. Dr. Rush made a trip to New Orleans to have an conversation with Dr. Derham. After making his trip, meeting, and speaking with Dr. Derham. Dr. Benjamin Rush speaks about Dr. Derham saying:
” 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.”
Derham died sometime in 1802, the mystery surrounding Derham’s death is still unknown.