Home > Uncategorized > Today in Black History–Daniel Hale Williams Performs Heart Surgery

Today in Black History–Daniel Hale Williams Performs Heart Surgery

On this day in 1893, Daniel Hale Williams became the first physician to successfully perform heart surgery. The pioneering Williams also opened Provident Hospital in Chicago, the first medical facility with an interracial staff.

williamsWilliams was born on January 18, 1856 in Hollidaysburg, After his father died, 10-year-old Daniel was sent to live in Baltimore, Maryland, with family friends. 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 to pursue his education. He worked as an apprentice with Dr. Henry Palmer, a highly accomplished surgeon, and then completed further training at Chicago Medical College.

Williams, AKA Dr. Dan to his patients, set up his own practice in Chicago’s South Side and taught anatomy at his alma mater. Because of primitive social and medical circumstances existing in that era, Williams treated patients in their homes, including conducting occasional surgeries on kitchen tables. In doing so, he learned many of the emerging antiseptic, sterilization procedures of the day and gained a reputation for professionalism.

Provident Hospital, back in the day.

Provident Hospital, back in the day.

Because of discrimination, African-Americans were still barred from being admitted to hospitals and black doctors were refused staff positions. Knowing change was needed, Williams opened Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses in 1891, the nation’s first hospital with a racial integrated nursing and intern program.

On July 9, 1893, a young black man named James Cornish was injured in a bar fight, stabbed in the chest with a knife. By the time he made it to Provident he was close to death, having lost a great deal of blood and in shock.

Williams was faced with the choice of opening the man’s chest and possibly operating internally though this was almost unheard of in that era because of the risk of infection. With little time to spare, Williams made the decision to operate and opened the man’s chest. He sutured the sac surrounding the chest, then applied antiseptic procedures before closing him up. About six weeks later, Cornish left Provident completely recovered and would go on to live for another 50 years. And Dr. Dan’s procedures were used as standards for future internal surgeries.

The patient.

The patient.

In February 1894, Williams was appointed as chief surgeon at the Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. Doctors from all over the country traveled to Washington to view the hospital and to sit in on surgery performed there.
During this time, Williams married Alice Johnson and the couple soon moved to Chicago where he resumed his position as chief surgeon at Provident Hospital, and also conducted surgeries at nearby Mercy Hospital and St. Luke’s Hospital, an exclusive hospital for wealthy white patients. He was also asked to travel across the country to attend to important patients or to oversee certain procedures.

When the American Medical Association refused to accept black members, Williams helped create the National Medical Association and served as vice-president. Williams died in 1931, having set standards and inspired medical and nursing students, both black and white, to push harder and achieve more .


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