James Durham is recognized as one of the earliest black physicians. He was held in the highest regard by many medical practitioners of his era and by the leading physician of the period, Dr. Benjamin Rush. Durham's medical skill was acknowledged by his contemporaries, and his medical practice was profitable enough to provide him with a comfortable life in New Orleans. As an expert on the throat and diseases common in New Orleans and the surrounding area, he treated patients from different social and economic backgrounds. James Durham contributed to the abolitionist movement and to the legacy of American civil rights and culture.
James Durham (some sources say Derham) was born into slavery in Philadelphia on May 1, 1762. When he was a child he became the property of Dr. James Kearsley Jr., an expert on sore throat diseases. Durham learned how to mix medicines and how to care for patients on a small scale as an assistant to Kearsley. In this way, Durham had a medical apprenticeship that was the same as the medical training most of the 3,500 American trained physicians experienced. Durham left Kearsley when the latter was arrested for his Loyalist leanings and imprisoned for treason during the American Revolutionary War. Kearsley died in prison in 1777. During the American Revolutionary War, Durham continued to work in medicine, performing menial tasks for a new owner, George West, a surgeon linked to the Sixteenth British Regiment.
Durham's apprenticeship continued with different masters until Dr. Robert Dow (Dove), a Scottish physician of New Orleans, became his owner. Durham impressed Dow with his knowledge of medicine and continued to learn a great deal as a medical assistant to the Scottish physician. Durham worked for Dow for a couple of years until he bought his freedom just before his twenty-first birthday. His freedom cost him approximately five hundred pesos which he paid in small amounts to Dow, who afterward became his patron. James Durham served the mulatto and black residents of New Orleans as well as some of the prominent white residents of the city. He earned up to $3,000 a year, a significant amount, by the time he was in his mid-20s.
Gains Professional Recognition
In 1788, at the age of twenty-six, Durham traveled to Philadelphia where he was baptized by Bishop White of the Episcopal Church and where he met Dr. Benjamin Rush, the renowned American physician. He was married without children when he met Rush. Durham may have been traveling to meet with abolitionist groups when he visited Philadelphia since he was active in the abolitionist movement and secretary of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. At their first meeting, Rush was impressed with Durham's medical knowledge and praised him for his language skills, for at the time Durham spoke both French and Spanish.
The meeting in Philadelphia could have been prearranged. Rush, an abolitionist, may have been interested in interviewing Durham, since abolitionists in America and abroad had agreed to distribute information about intelligent blacks as a means of changing the belief that the Negro was inferior and lacking in intelligence. In Philadelphia, Durham was introduced to Rush's family, his academic colleagues, and his friends. He became somewhat of a personality in Philadelphia. After their initial meeting Rush and Durham corresponded with each other for many years.
- Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on May 1
- Medical apprenticeship
- Purchased freedom
- Met Dr. Benjamin Rush
- Moved to Philadelphia from New Orleans
James Durham was a courageous and a dedicated physician. During the yellow fever epidemic of the late eighteenth century, he worked long hours with the sick. During the diphtheria outbreak in the 1780s he mixed medicines to fight the disease. Apparently, his career progressed without much interruption until 1801 when city commissioners in New Orleans decided to restrict the activities of persons practicing medicine without medical degrees. According to Betty L. Plummer they wrote, "Among those prohibited from 'treating persons in the city because they are not physicians' was the free Negro[s] Derum [sic]." The commission did, however, allow him to provide care for throat ailments only. Durham apparently cooperated with the decree and worked with Dow on the patients he was not allowed to treat independently. Yet Durham was concerned about the restriction. Plummer's article on Durham's correspondence to Benjamin Rush indicates that he asked about the opportunity of earning a living in Philadelphia. On May 20, 1801 he wrote to Dr. Rush, "Sir if you think I can get a living in Philadelphia for I want to leave New Orleanes [sic] and come and live in the states." Durham eventually set up a practice in Philadelphia and continued to have a successful medical practice and career.
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Mario A. Charles