James Derham caught our eye after popping up on several lists of famous nurses throughout history. Though he was never formally trained as a nurse or doctor, he has an inspiring story as a caregiver and had a real dedication to medicine.
Derham was born into slavery in Philadelphia in 1757. Over the course of his younger years, he was owned by three doctors. The third, a physician named Dr. Robert Love, encouraged him to go into medicine and helped to train him. Derham began working for Dr. Love, predominantly as a medical assistant and apothecary, and by 1783 was able to purchase his freedom with his earnings. In doing so, he became the first African-American to formally practice medicine in the United States. This is especially unique because he never received any type of medical degree.
Derham was able to open his own medical practice in New Orleans and by age 26 was earning more than $3,000 a year. During this time, Derham visited his hometown and met with Dr. Benjamin Rush, who is known as the father of American medicine. Impressed with his skills and personality, Rush encouraged him to move back to Philadelphia and bring his practice with him. It was there that Derham would go on to become an expert on throat diseases and the relationship between climate and disease.
Rush said of Derham, “I have conversed with him upon most of the most acute and epidemic diseases of the country where he lives and was pleased to find him perfectly acquainted with the modern simple mode of practice on these diseases. I expected to have to suggest some new medicines to him but he suggested many more to me.”
Derham disappeared after 1802, and his fate from that time forward is unknown.
What other historical nurses inspire you? Let us know in the comments!