Black History Month Obscure Fact #20

When the question “Who was the first black doctor?” is asked, people often think of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams. It’s true that Dr. Williams was renown for being the first in the United States to repair a pericardium — essentially performing open-heart surgery. But this country’s first black physician was actually James Derham.

Although he never received the degree of M.D. he was the first African-American to formally practice medicine in the U.S. Derham was born in 1762 as a slave. He had several masters who were doctors and one encouraged him to practice medicine. He worked as a nurse to buy his freedom, which he was granted in 1783. He opened his first medical practice at age 26. He was acquainted with Dr. Benjamin Rush, who asked him to move to Philadelphia and practice. He opened up a practice there and became the foremost specialist in disorders of the throat.

Additionally, the first black university-trained physician was James McCune Smith and the first black person to graduate from an American medical school was David J. Peck.

Alexander Lucius Twilight was the first African-American to receive a college degree from an American institution. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College in 1823.

(Sources: e-ssortment:, “African-American Firsts: Famous, little-known and unsung triumphs of blacks in America” by Joan Potter with Constance Claytor. Pinto Press 1994;