UNMC News

African-American contributions to medicine -- part 4 of 7

In honor of Black History Month, UNMC Today is highlighting the contributions of African-Americans in medicine. The seven-part series continues today with James Durham, the first African-American physician in the United States.

James Durham -- the first African-American physician in the United States

James Durham was a 14-year-old slave when the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia in 1776. Unlike other slaves, Durham, had learned to read and write. As a youngster, he was trained to mix medicines by a physician who bought him from another slave owner. At age 11, Durham was bought by yet another doctor, who taught him to serve and work with patients. When he was 21, Durham bought his freedom and began his own medical practice in New Orleans. His fluency in Spanish, French and English made him a popular doctor and soon one of the city's most distinguished.

In 1788, he was invited to Philadelphia to meet Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of America's foremost physicians. Dr. Rush wanted to investigate the 26-year-old's reported success in treating patients with diphtheria. Dr. Rush was so impressed with Durham's knowledge, that he personally read Durham's paper on diphtheria before the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

In 1789, Durham returned to New Orleans, where he saved more yellow fever victims than any other physician. During an epidemic that killed thousands, he lost 11 of 64 patients. Just three years later, the city of New Orleans limited Durham's practice of medicine because he did not have a formal medical degree. Although Durham continued to exchange information with Dr. Rush, he disappeared after 1802 and the idea that black people were incapable of understanding medicine remained widespread for decades. (Taken from African American Healers by Clinton Cox).