Black History Month Tribute: Strength, Persistence and Talent

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By Marilyn M. Singleton, CP Op-Ed Contributor
February 7, 2013|11:53 am

Black history in American has certainly had its ups and downs. It's troubling when, for political theater, those who should know better fail to emphasize the inspirational stories that highlight the strengths of blacks and the humanity of whites. While it is undeniable that cruelty and suffering are part of this country's history, at some point it is counterproductive to paint blacks as weak victims of the white man's callousness.

There were always free blacks in America (including my family). Indeed, in 1641, Mathias De Sousa, an African indentured servant who came from England with Lord Baltimore, was elected to Maryland's General Assembly. The first census of 1790 counted 19 percent black Americans, 10 per cent of whom were free.

Black Americans served on both sides during the Revolutionary War. The British promised freedom to slaves belonging to Patriot masters who served. Because of his manpower shortages, George Washington lifted the ban on black enlistment in the Continental Army in January 1776, creating his so-called "mixed multitude," which was 15 per cent black. Economist Walter Williams is so correct that necessity can overcome prejudice.

Nestled in the back of some folks' minds was (is?) the notion that blacks were not as intelligent as whites. They certainly couldn't have had the smarts to be doctors. James Derham (c. 1757-1802?), born a slave in Philadelphia, proved the naysayers wrong. He was the first known black American physician, although not professionally trained in medical school. As was common at the time, physicians were trained in apprenticeships. Young Derham was fortunate that his three early masters were physicians who taught him to read and write.

Derham's third owner taught the young teen how to mix and administer medicines. After this owner, who had been arrested during the war for being a Tory, died in prison, Derham was sold to a British officer, and he served as a doctor to soldiers. After the war, he became the property of a Scottish physician (appropriately named Dr. Love) from New Orleans, who hired him to work as a medical assistant and apothecary.

By 1783, Derham quickly saved enough money to buy his freedom, and he set up his own medical practice in New Orleans. Derham, who spoke English, French, and Spanish, was a popular and highly regarded doctor, who treated both black and white patients. By age 30, Derham earned more than $3,000 annually.

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Derham's medical paper on his success in treating diphtheria caught the attention of Benjamin Rush, a physician who signed the Declaration of Independence, served as surgeon general of the Continental Army, and has been called "the father of American medicine." Rush invited Derham to Philadelphia in 1788 and was so impressed that he encouraged him to stay. There, Derham became an expert in throat diseases and in the relationship between weather and disease.

In 1789, Derham returned to New Orleans, where he saved many yellow fever victims. He stopped practicing medicine in 1801, when the new city regulations required a formal medical degree to be considered a doctor. Nothing is known of his whereabouts after 1802.

The first university-trained black American physician was James McCune Smith, born in 1813 to slave parents who were emancipated by New York law. Despite his scholastic achievements at the Free African School of New York, he was denied admission to American medical schools. When he was 19 years old, the Glasgow Emancipation Society helped Smith enroll in Scotland's University of Glasgow. He received his B.A. degree in 1835 and his M.D. degree in 1837. A skilled debater and lecturer, Smith was a founding member of the New York Statistics Society in 1852, and was elected as an early member of the American Geographic Society.

The first American medical degree was conferred on David J. Peck, born circa 1826 into a free black family in Pittsburgh, Pa. In 1846, after studying two years with a private physician, he enrolled in Rush Medical College and graduated in 1847. Peck practiced medicine in Philadelphia for 2 years before moving to Central America to start a homeland for free blacks in Nicaragua.

Thank you, doctors, for paving the way for my grandfather, my father, and me.

Marilyn M. Singleton, MD, JD is a board-certified anesthesiologist and Association of American Physicians and Surgeons member. While working in the operating room, she attended UC Berkeley Law School, focusing on constitutional law and administrative law.
 

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