James Derham was born a slave in 1762 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At eleven years old, he was sold to Dr. John Kearsley, a physician specializing in throat care. Historians believe he taught Derham to read and write, two very unconventional skills for the common slave. He learned the foundation of pharmaceuticals, prepared medication, and assisted with Kearsley’s patients administering simple procedures.
After Kearsley’s death, Derham was sold to military surgeon, Dr. George West. As a young teen, Derham already displayed great medical aptitude and was further encouraged by Dr. West. Under West’s mentorship, Derham was on his way to a medical career.
Derham later became property of a distinguished physician, Dr. Robert Dove of New Orleans, Louisiana. Dove continued to train Derham and soon paid him to be his nurse. Despite the master-slave relationship, they became close friends.
In 1783, Derham was liberated from slavery. Reports vary on whether Dow granted him freedom or if he purchased it himself with his saved earnings.
As a free man, he began his own New Orleans practice, specializing in throat medicine like his early teacher. Popular for both his medical expertise and his fluency in English, Spanish, and French, he quickly rose as a reputable physician. Helping patients of all races, Derham was especially a pioneer for the African-Americans who were not allowed to see white doctors.
Derham’s practice thrived and by 1788 he was the most distinguished doctor in the city, earning over $3,000 per year. He achieved higher survival rates for his patients during the yellow fever epidemic than the average doctor. He published medical papers as his expertise grew–his work even attracted the attention of Dr. Benjamin Rush, physician and co-signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Rush showered him with praise and aid as they exchanged letters for over a decade. According to the Journal of the National Medical Association, Volume 4. No. 1, Rush expressed, “I thought I could give him information concerning the treatment of disease, but I learned more from him than he could expect from me.”
In 1801, New Orleans issued a new city regulation permitting only those with formal degrees to practice on patients. In 1802, Derhem mysteriously vanished.
Some believe he practiced until his disappearance, possibly being lynched, while others believe he moved away to practice elsewhere. No records or information of his whereabouts have been discovered since.