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Medicine

Who was America’s first black physician?

By the 1780s James Durham (some sources say Derham; c. 1762–?) was the first regularly recognized black physician in the United States. Later he was recognized as “more than an ordinary physician.” Born a slave in Philadelphia, his early masters taught him the fundamentals of reading and writing. After he was sold to John Kearsley Jr., a successful Philadelphia practitioner and an authority on sore throat distempers, his new master taught him medicine that was in line with medical training of that time, which primarily consisted of mixing drugs and handling patients. He was owned by a number of physicians, ending up in New Orleans with a Scottish physician, who hired him to perform many medical services. His master was so impressed with Durham’s medical competence that he permitted him to buy his freedom in 1783. Durham built a flourishing practice in New Orleans and had both black and white patients. Durham also became a superb linguist and was fluent in both French and Spanish. He treated patients with diphtheria and was instrumental in helping to contain the yellow fever epidemic that ravaged New Orleans in 1796. His knowledge of medicine had deepened and he developed into an authority on the relationship of disease to climate. In 1801 the city council restricted him because he was unlicensed and untrained.



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