Derham was born into slavery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was owned by several doctors, and one of his owners, a physician named Dr. Bob Love, encouraged him to go into medicine. By working as a nurse, he purchased his freedom by 1790. He opened a medical practice in New Orleans, and by the age of 20 his annual earnings exceeded $3,000.
Derham met with Dr. Benjamin Rush, the father of American medicine, and Rush was so impressed by Derham that he encouraged him to move to Philadelphia. There he became an expert in throat diseases and in the relationship between climate and sickness.
He also had 10 siblings. Derham disappeared in 1802.
- List of African-American firsts
- List of people who disappeared mysteriously
- Men in nursing
- Jane Minor
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- "James Durnham, A pioneering Physician and a Skilled Healer". African American Registry. African American Registry. Retrieved 3 July 2017.
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- James Durnham, a pioneering physician and skilled healer at the African American Registry
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