James Durham: The Story of The First Melanated Man To Practice Medicine In The United States | History Matters

In 1762, James Durham was born as a slave in Philadelphia. As a child, he was sold to Dr. John Kearley who would begin teaching him the basics about medicine. Throughout his young love, he would be sold several more times to other slave owners who were doctor’s and they continued to help him build upon his knowledge of medicine.

In 1783, while living with slave owner Dr. Robert Dow, a prominent Scottish born physician who was a New Orleans, Louisiana resident began not only teaching him more about the medical field but also allowed him to practice on some of his patient’s. This was the first recorded instance in the United States of a Melanated man trained in medicine being able to work on patients of any race. Later in 1783, Durham was either granted his freedom or paid for his freedom with the money he earned from treating patients and was now able to open his own practice. He opened his first practice in New Orleans and specialized in throat medicine.

He would also build such a reputation as a physician that he caught the attention of Dr. Benjamin Rush, the most prominent physician in the United States at the time. They would remain friends for several years. One of the most impressive things about James Durham’s journey is he never had any formal education. Everything he knew about medicine was either self-taught or from the information he received from several doctors throughout the years. This speaks to the brilliance of Melanated people when we put our minds to something.

The end of James Durham’s life remains a mystery. In 1802, he would go missing never to be heard from again. Some say he was killed based on his upstanding position as a doctor in a heavily racist society others believe he just moved to a different place without alerting many people. Either way, his life, and accomplishments need to acknowledged and respected. 

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