First 3 African American Physicians

A profile of the first three African American physicians, James Derham,the first to practice medicine, David Peck, the first medical school graduate and James McCune Smith, the first university trained physician.

The pioneering leadership of virtually every professional area, routinely participated in by Africans Americans in the twentieth century, have antecedents in the nineteenth century. The first black physician in America, not professionally trained in a medical school, was James Derham. Derham, born a slave in Philadelphia in 1757, was owned by three doctors. Dr. Robert Love, his third owner, encouraged Derham to practice medicine.

Working as a medical assistant and apothecary, Derham saved enough money to buy his freedom in 1783 and opened a medical practice in New Orleans. By the age of 26, Derham's New Orleans' practice earned him over $3,000 annually. Derham met Dr. Benjamin Rush, the father of American medicine, during a visit to Philadelphia. Rush was impressed with Derham and convinced him to relocate his practice to Philadelphia. Derham received respect and admiration from his colleagues, and became nationally renowned as a leading specialist in throat disorders and the relationship between climate and disease. Benjamin 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 suggest some new medicines to him but he suggested many more to me."

Historians credit James McCune Smith as the individual who best exemplified the nineteenth century African-American physician-abolitionist. Smith has the distinction of being the first university-trained black physician. Smith attended the Free African School of New York. As a child, Smith showed flashes of brilliance. At the age of eleven, he was chosen to give the school's address when General Lafayette visited the school in 1824. At age 19, the Rev. Peter Williams, a Episcopalian priest, helped Smith enroll in the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He completed study for the B.A. degree in 1835, his M.A. degree in 1836, and his M.D. degree in 1837. Part of Smith's education was sponsored by a British anti-slavery organization known as the Glasgow Emancipation Society.

Before leaving Scotland, a farewell dinner was given in Smith's honor. Unrestrained superlatives were given Smith for his stellar academic and private accomplishments during his stay in Scotland. When Smith took the floor, he stated, "I thank you for the sake of my countrymen--that part of them, especially, who participate in such an unholy prejudice--for it must prove to them that you, who also have a complexion as fair, if not fairer than their own--that you are not only free from such prejudice, but glory in being free from it." He knew what socially and racially awaited his arrival back in America. Awaiting me will be "insults which harm not the body, but which 'enter the soul.'" "The memory of this evening," he continued, "will cheer me on to endure the 'oppressor's scorn.'" He concluded by pledging that it will be his life-long struggle to participate in the downfall of slavery and uplift of the free people of color in America.

In mid-summer 1837, Smith returned to America. Though in much demand as a public speaker, Smith, operated quite a successful medical practice, and was the proprietor of two drug stores, but his contributions to the free black community came through his writings and public service activities. Smith was an ardent opponent of colonization and felt that blacks should seek to make their claim on citizenship in America. He was a staunch advocate of an independent black press. He was instrumental in organizing the National Council of the Colored People, and worked to establish the Philomathean Society, and the Colored Orphan Asylum.

During the Civil War, black physicians, like all blacks, were initially barred from serving the army. James McCune Smith, along with his fellow abolitionist Martin Delany, among others, launched a campaign to rally public sentiment in the North to permit blacks to fight for their freedom. This campaign persuaded President Lincoln to relent, in the summer of 1862, to arm blacks to fight in the War. After enlistment, most black physicians were assigned to work in hospitals in Washington, D.C.

From 1837 onward James McCune Smith, along with others such as Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne, co-founder and first president of Wilberforce University, were equal champions in the educational, moral, and social uplift of free blacks. James McCune Smith died of heart disease on November 17, 1865.

David J. Peck was the first black to graduate from an American medical school. David Jones Peck's father, John Peck, was one of the most prominent abolitionists, ministers, and businessmen in the Pittsburgh free black community. 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 College in the Fall of 1846. David J. Peck graduated from the Rush Medical College in 1847. During the summer after graduation, Peck toured the state of Ohio with William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass.

Peck practiced medicine in Philadelphia for only two years, from 1849-1851. Martin Delany, one of Peck's childhood friends, was able to convince Peck to join him in a project to find a homeland for free blacks in Central America. Peck was named port physician of San Juan Del Norte (later called Greytown) Nicaragua on the Mosquito Coast. Peck organized the locals, which included black expatriates, who elected Martin Delany mayor and commander-in-chief of the militia. Peck remained in Central America until at least 1855, nothing is known of his life after that year. A memorial at Rush Medical College was erected and dedicated in honor of Peck in January 1984. The plate reads, "Dr. David was graduated from the Rush Medical College in 1847 and was the first American black to receive a doctor of medicine degree from an American medical school."

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