Celebrating Black History Month: Danial Hale Williams

Daniel Hale Williams (1856-1931) – One of the first physicians to perform open-heart surgery in the US.

Daniel Hale Williams pursued a pioneering career in medicine. Williams opened Provident Hospital in 1891, the first medical facility to have an interracial staff. He was also one of the first physicians to successfully complete pericardial surgery on a patient. Williams later became chief surgeon of the Freedmen’s Hospital.

Daniel Hale Williams pursued a pioneering career in medicine. Williams opened Provident Hospital in 1891, the first medical facility to have an interracial staff. He was also one of the first physicians to successfully complete pericardial surgery on a patient. Williams later became chief surgeon of the Freedmen’s Hospital.

Daniel Hale Williams was born on January 18, 1856 and raised in the city of Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. His father worked as a “free negro” barber to support his wife and seven children, but died of tuberculosis when Daniel was just 10 years old. After the elder Williams died, Daniel was sent to live with family friends in Baltimore, Maryland. He became a shoemaker’s apprentice but disliked the work and decided to return to his family who had moved to Illinois. Like his father, he took up barbering, but ultimately decided he wanted to pursue his education in medicine. He worked as an apprentice for two years with Dr. Henry Palmer, a highly accomplished surgeon and former Wisconsin surgeon general. In 1880, he entered Chicago Medical College (now known as Northwestern University Medical School) and completed his medical training.

Williams set up his own practice in Chicago’s South Side and taught anatomy at his alma mater. Williams — who was called Dr. Dan by patients — adopted sterilization procedures for his office informed by the recent findings on germ transmission and prevention from Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister

Due to the discrimination of the day, African American citizens were still barred from being admitted to hospitals and Black doctors were refused staff positions. Firmly believing this needed to change, in May 1891 Williams opened Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses, the nation’s first hospital with a nursing and intern program that had a racially integrated staff. The facility, where Williams worked as a surgeon, was publicly championed by famed abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass.

In 1893, Williams continued to make history when he operated on James Cornish, a man who was stabbed in the chest in a bar fight. By the time he was transported to Provident Hospital, Cornish had lost a great deal of blood and had gone into shock. In order to save his life, Williams was forced to open up the man’s chest cavity, a feat that was unheard of because any entrance into the chest or abdomen of a patient would almost surely bring with it resulting infection and therefore death. Williams made the decision to operate and opened the man’s chest. He saw the damage to the man’s pericardium (sac surrounding the heart) and sutured it, then applied antiseptic procedures before closing his chest. Fifty one days later, James Cornish walked out of Provident Hospital completely recovered and would go on to live for another fifty years. While this was officially not the first pericardial surgery, it was the first time that any surgeon would open the chest cavity successfully without the patient dying of infection. Williams’ procedures would be used as a standard for future internal surgeries.

In 1894, Dr. Williams became chief surgeon of Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., the most prestigious medical post available to African Americans then. There he made improvements that reduced the hospital’s mortality rate. In 1895, he helped to organize the National Medical Association for black professionals, who were barred from the American Medical Association.

When Daniel Hale Williams retired, he received numerous honors and awards. He received honorary degrees from Howard and Wilberforce Universities, and was a member of the Chicago Surgical Society. Williams died on August 4, 1931 in Idlewild, Michigan, having set surgical standards and examples for years to come. Among his greatest achievements were creating and assisting black hospitals all around the nation, which provided opportunities for black medical professionals and reducing the mortality rate for people of color and poor people throughout America. As part of his legacy, he urged black physicians to become leaders in their communities. He also influenced black leaders in other cities to consider starting hospitals, saving untold lives by proxy.

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