Notable Early Black Physicians

Who were some of the first Black men and women to become physicians​ in the United States?

James Derham

James Derham never received a medical degree, but he is considered the first Black 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 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. 

James McCune Smith

Engraving head and shoulders portrait of Dr. James McCune Smith abolitionist and emancipator circa 1860.

Fotosearch / Stringer / Getty Images 

James McCune Smith was the first Black person 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 Black as well as White patients. In addition to his medical practice, Smith was the first Black American to manage a pharmacy in the United States.

Outside of 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. 

David Jones Peck

David Jones Peck was the first Black person to graduate from a medical school in the United States.

Peck studied under Dr. Joseph P. Gazzam, 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 Black graduate from medical school was used to argue for citizenship for Black Americans.

Two years later, Peck opened a practice in Philadelphia. Despite his accomplishments, 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 emigration to Central America led by Martin Delany.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler

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

Born in 1831 in Delaware, Crumpler was raised by an aunt who provided care for the sick. Crumpler began her own medical career as a nurse in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Believing she could do more as a physician, she applied and was accepted to the New England Female Medical College in 1860.

She was also the first Black person to publish a text concerning medical discourse. The text, "A Book of Medical Discourses," was published in 1883.

Susan Smith McKinny Steward

Susan Smith McKinny Steward

Unknown Author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain 

In 1869, Susan Maria McKinney Steward became the third Black 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, New York, specializing in prenatal care and childhood diseases. Throughout Steward’s medical career, she published and spoke about the medical issues in these areas. She co-founded the Brooklyn Women’s Homeopathic Hospital and Dispensary and completed 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. 

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Lewis, Femi. "Notable Early Black Physicians." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Lewis, Femi. (2021, February 16). Notable Early Black Physicians. Retrieved from Lewis, Femi. "Notable Early Black Physicians." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).