Notable Early African-American Physicians

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James Derham

James Derham, first African-American physician
James Derham, first African-American physician but with no medical degree. Public Domain

James Derham never received a medical degree, but he is considered the first African-American physician in the United States.

Born in Philadelphia in 1762, Derham was taught to read and worked with some doctors. By 1783, Derham was still enslaved, but he was working in New Orleans with a Scottish physicians who allowed him to perform various medical procedures. Soon after, Derham purchased his freedom and established his medical office in New Orleans.

Derham gained popularity after he successfully treated diphtheria patients and even published articles on the subject. He also worked to end the Yellow Fever epidemic losing only 11 out of 64 of his patients.

By 1801, Derham’s medical practice was restricted from performing several procedures because he did not possess a medical degree. 

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James McCune Smith

Dr. James McCune Smith
Dr. James McCune Smith. Public Domain

 James McCune Smith was the first African-American to earn a medical degree. In 1837, Smith earned a medical degree from the University of Glasgow in Scotland. 

When he returned to the United States, Smith said, "I have striven to obtain education, at every sacrifice and every hazard, and to apply such education to the good of our common country.”

For the next 25 years, Smith worked to fulfill his words. With a medical practice in lower Manhattan,  Smith  specialized in general surgery and medicine, providing treatment to African-American as well as white patients. In addition to his medical practice, Smith was the first  African-American to manage a pharmacy in the United States.

In addition to his work as a physician, Smith was an abolitionist who worked with Frederick Douglass. In 1853, Smith and Douglass established the National Council of Negro People. 

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David Peck

David Jones Peck was the first African-American to graduate from a medical school in the United States.

Peck studied under Dr. Joseph P. Gaszzam, an abolitionist and physician in Pittsburgh from 1844 to 1846. In 1846, Peck enrolled in Rush Medical College in Chicago. One year later, Peck graduated and worked with abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. Peck’s accomplishment as the first African-American graduate from medical school was used as propogranda to argue for citizenship for African-Americans.

Two years later, Peck opened a practice in Philadelphia. Despite his accomplishment, Peck was not a successful physician as white doctors would not refer patients to him.  By 1851, Peck closed his practice and was participating in an emigration to Central America led by Martin Delany.

Public Domain

 In 1864, Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler became the first African-American woman to earn a medical degree.

She was also the first African-American to publish a text concerning medical discourse. The text, A Book of Medical Discourses was published in 1883. More »

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Susan Smith McKinny Steward

In 1869, Susan Maria McKinney Steward became the third African-American woman to earn a medical degree. She was also the first to receive such a degree in New York State, graduating from the New York Medical College for Women.

From 1870 to 1895, Steward ran a medical practice in Brooklyn, NY, specializing in prenatal care and childhood diseases. Throughout Steward’s medical career, she published and spoke about the medical issues in these areas. Also, she co-founded the Brooklyn Women’s Homeopathic Hospital and Dispensary and completing post-graduate work at the Long Island Medical College Hospital. Steward also served patients at the Brooklyn Home for Aged Colored People and New York Medical College and Hospital for Women.