“Honoring Accomplishments” Series – African-Americans in Medicine

Stylized portrait painting of James Derham by Jeremy Paten (blackpast.org)
Portrait painting of Benjamin Rush – a co-signer of the Declaration of Independence – by Charles Willson Peale, c. 1818. (Public Domain)

The practice of medicine in the United States dates back to the colonial era, as does the history of African-Americans involved in it. The first African-American to officially practice medicine was James Derham. Born into slavery in the city of Philadelphia in 1762, Derham was moved from his previous owners to the supervision of John Kearsley Jr., a local medical doctor. Derham received instruction in medicine by Dr. Kearsley Jr., specifically in the fields of compound medicines for throat illnesses and bedside manner for patients. After Dr. Kearsley Jr.’s death, Derham was moved to a different master, including with another medical doctor assigned to a British military regiment in the then-ongoing American Revolutionary War. Some years after the Revolution, Derham was again transferred to Dr. Robert Dove in New Orleans, Louisiana. Although he was legally owned by Dr. Dove, Derham worked as an assistant in his medical practice as the two developed a strong friendship. Dr. Dove soon granted Derham his freedom, after which he started practicing medicine independently in the city. Although he never earned an M.D., Derham’s practice was recorded to have had an average annual profit of $3,000, or $101,180 in 2023 money. While on a business trip in Philadelphia, Derham met and befriended Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Founding Father who co-signed the Declaration of Independence. The two corresponded with each other via letter for twelve years, with a letter from Derham to Rush in 1802 being the last document written by him that is known to exist. The life and career of James Derham was fairly obscure in general histories written about Colonial America and the early years of the new republic. His most famous instance of remembrance was in W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1903 essay, “The Talented Tenth.” Originating among progressive white missionaries in the late 19th century, the phrase “talented tenth” was used to describe the potential for one out of every ten African-Americans to become major figures in literature, academia, and ultimately social reform movements. The phrase was most notably used by Du Bois, as it helped frame his proposal for African-Americans to be educated in the liberal arts to reach their full potential. Du Bois wrote positively of Derham’s career and legacy, remarking that he was one of many prominent Black figures who “strove by word and deed to save the color line from becoming the line between the bond and free, but all they could do was nullified by Eli Whitney and the Curse of Gold.”

Portrait photograph of Martin Delany, c. 1885. (West Virginia University Libraries)
Illustration of the Second Battle of Rivas from the Filibuster War, c. 1856 (The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History)

A generation after James Derham’s medical career, David J. Peck – the first African-American to officially receive a Doctor of Medicine from a medical institution in the United States – was born in around 1826. Raised in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Peck was the son of the free Black married couple of Sarah Jones Peck and John C. Peck, the latter being a notable minister and abolitionist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. David Peck received personal instruction in medical practice by antislavery physician Dr. Joseph P. Gazzam from 1844 to 1846. He was then enrolled into the Rush Medical College in Chicago, Illinois, graduating in 1847 with a Doctor of Medicine. Now a formal practitioner of medicine, Dr. Peck opened his first office in Philadelphia in 1848, marrying a woman named Mary Lewis one year later. Unlike the success of James Derham several decades earlier, Peck’s medical practice was largely unsuccessful, after which he and his wife returned to Pittsburgh in 1850. Two years after his practice closed, Martin Delany – an abolitionist who was the first African-American to become a senior officer in the United States Army – proposed to Peck that he move to San Juan del Norte in Nicaragua, which he did in 1852. Peck lived the last three years of his life in Nicaragua, whereupon he was caught in the crossfire of the Filibuster War, a conflict waged from 1855 to 1857 between the invading mercenary army of William Walker and the defending coalition of Central American and U.S. military forces. Amid a skirmish in spring 1855 between the two warring factions, Peck sustained a concussion from a cannonball’s blast as he was observing the fighting with Charles Doubleday, who would go on to write about his experiences in Reminiscences of the ‘Filibuster’ War in Nicaragua. David Peck ultimately succumbed to his concussion injuries, dying at the age of twenty-nine.

Portrait engraving of Dr. James McCune Smith, c. 1850. (Public Domain)
Lithograph of the African Free School in New York City, c. 1887. (New York Public Library)

Within the same time period as David Peck’s accomplishments, Dr. James McCune Smith became the first African-American to receive formal training to become a medical doctor. Born into slavery in 1813, Smith was freed on July 4, 1827 at the age of fourteen with the passage of the Emancipation Act of New York. As a young man, Smith attended the African Free School, a school founded by the New York Manumission Society in 1787 with the purpose of providing education for the children of slaves and free non-white Americans. One of Smith’s teachers observed that he was an “exceptionally bright student,” with one particular instance where he was chosen to provide a speech for the Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat and military officer who served with the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War. After graduating from the African Free School, Smith was unable to apply to attend both Columbia University and the Geneva Medical College, as both institutions imposed racial discrimination policies on their student bodies. Acting upon the advice from his mentor Rev. Peter Williams Jr., Smith applied and was accepted into the University of Glasgow in Scotland, with the African Free School providing funding for his tuition. Slavery had been abolished in both Scotland and England in the 1770s, allowing for racial tolerance to increase by the time Smith arrived for college. From 1835 to 1837, Smith earned a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, a medical degree, and completed an internship in Paris, France. In the first few months of his medical career, Smith earned a residency at the Lock Hospital for Women in Glasgow. Based on the work he did over there, Smith published two articles in the “London Medical Gazette,” making him the first African-American to have had written works published in a journal of science and medicine. Smith returned to the United States after his studies were complete, and he soon married a free African-American woman named Malvina Barnet, who was a recent graduate of the Rutgers Female Institute. In describing the education that he received abroad, Smith remarked at a gathering of community leaders in New York City that he strove to “obtain education, at every sacrifice and every hazard, and to apply such education to the good of our common country.” The married couple had eleven children with five surviving to adulthood, all the while living in a mixed-ethnicity neighborhood in New York City. From 1846 to 1863, Smith’s medical practices were primarily conducted at the Colored Orphan Asylum , which had been founded by Quaker philanthropists in 1837. Smith served as the primary physician for the hundreds of children housed in the orphanage, and would provide them with regular vaccinations for smallpox. Beyond his immediate work, Smith had extensive involvement in pro-abolition political advocacy and published several journals on medicine and science. One of the most notable journals that Smith wrote was “A Dissertation on the Influence of Climate on Longevity,” which was published in 1846 as a refutation to Secretary of State John C. Calhoun’s use of the 1840 U.S. Census to claim that African-Americans had worse lives when freed from slavery. In another scientific article in 1859, Smith wrote an academic refutation of Thomas Jefferson’s previously published theories on racial inferiority from his 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia. The academic and political works of James McCune Smith had far-reaching influences on abolitionist and scientific movements in antebellum New York City, with Dr. Vanessa Gamble remarking in 2010 that his observations of race being a social designation, not a biological category, was a full century ahead of the civil rights movements of the 20th century. Smith died from congestive heart failure on November 17, 1865, just nineteen days before the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery in the United States. His wife and five of his children survived him, and his legacy has long since been recognized and highlighted by his descendants, the New York Academy of Medicine, and the University of Glasgow.

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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