Black History 365: The first Black person to… practice medicine in the United States (3-for-1)

Inscription: "First regularly-educated Colored Physician in the United States."

Inscription: “First regularly-educated Colored Physician in the United States.”

In 2016 for my Black History 365 series, I explore the obvious and not so obvious parts of American history that those called Black have taken part in. The things that we (Black people) have done other than be stolen from our homeland and made forced labor in a land foreign to us. I’m going to start this series by looking up the first time someone African-American did something and broke the color barrier in that activity or field. I’ll be starting with Wikipedia and working my way out:

I will be learning a lot of this as I go since I am a product of the standardized Euro/Anglo/Caucasian leaning public school system. I hope you enjoy learning with me. I’ll be going down the list chronologically as it appears in the Wikipedia article.

If you have any other sources or additional information for this topic, please share in the comments. I also welcome any and all comments and discussion. Thanks for reading!

This time is a 3-for-1 with a medical theme:

1783 – First African American to formally practice medicine in the U.S.: James Derham, who did not hold an M.D. degree

1837 – First formally trained African-American doctor: Dr. James McCune Smith from the University of Glasgow, Scotland

1847 – First African American to graduate from a U.S. medical school: Dr. David J. Peck (Rush Medical College)


James Derham

Derham was born into slavery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was owned by several doctors, and one of his owners, a physician named Dr. Bob Love, encouraged him to go into medicine. By working as a nurse, he purchased his freedom by 1790. He opened a medical practice, and by the age of 20 his annual earnings exceeded $3,000.

Derham met with Dr. Benjamin Rush, the father of American medicine, and Rush was so impressed by Derham that he encouraged him to move to Philadelphia. There he became an expert in throat diseases and in the relationship between climate and disease.

He also had 10 siblings. Derham disappeared after 1801 and died of a heart attack.


Dr. James McCune Smith

James McCune Smith (April 18, 1813 – November 17, 1865) was an American physicianapothecaryabolitionist, and author. He is the first African American to hold a medical degree and graduated at the top in his class at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. He was the first African American to run a pharmacy in the United States.


Dr. David J. Peck

David Jones Peck (c. 1826-1855) was an American physician. He was the first African American to receive a Doctor of Medicine from an American medical school.

Peck was born to John Peck[disambiguation needed], one of the most prominent abolitionists, ministers, and businessmen in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. From about 1844 to 1846, Peck studied medicine under Dr. Joseph P. Gazzam, a white anti-slavery physician. After his two years of study with Gazzam, Peck entered Rush Medical CollegeChicago in autumn 1846, and graduated in 1847. During the summer after graduation, Peck toured the state of Ohio with William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass.

He set up a medical practice in Philadelphia in 1848. He married Mary Lewis in Chicago, IL in 1849. When his medical practice in Philadelphia proved unsuccessful, he returned to Pittsburgh in 1850.

At the suggestion of Martin R. Delany, Peck moved to San Juan del Norte, Nicaragua in early 1852. No photographs of Dr. Peck are known to be in existence.

Peck was killed in the spring of 1855 in a skirmish between Democratic forces and their Republican rivals at Jalteva, Nicaragua (near Granada). The latter forces had been deposed after an election in 1854. Dr. Peck’s death is recollected by Charles W. Doubleday in Chapter 4 of his “Reminiscences of the ‘filibuster’ War in Nicaragua. Peck died as the result of concussion injuries sustained when a Republican cannonier fired on the position from which Doubleday and Peck had been observing their activities.


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