BHM2021: Dr. Daniel Hale Williams an American medical pioneer

A look at Dr. Daniel Hale Williams's accomplishments shows a man who believed, 'If it aint been done, then do it.'. He was committed to providing proper medical treatment and medical training to Blacks at the turn of the Century despite the many challenges. Dr. Williams did not let finances stop him. He made shoes, cut hair, and played the bass violin to earned money for his education. When racial discrimination shut him out of professional medical societies, Dr. Williams helps to form one. Even during medical school, he built Provident Hospital and opened a School of Nursing in Chicago. Provident was the first to be owned and operated by Blacks and the first to be non-segregated. Dr. Williams did this extraordinary feat to ensure that there would be opportunities for the increasing number of Blacks in the medical field and dignity for Black patients. Rev. Fredrick Douglass, his cousin, helped to advocate and fundraise.

A little-known fact about the first open-heart surgery was that Dr. Williams performed it as an emergency. The patient had been stabbed in the chest, and the knife was still inserted. Dr. Williams and his team of fellow black doctors had no heart-lung bypass machine to keep blood and oxygen flowing; they had no blood transfusion capability and no antibiotics such as penicillin, which had not to be discovered. No one had ever operated on a beating heart before this anywhere. The patient was named James Cornish, and he was released three months later.

The Martin Luther King Republicans encourage you to study more about Dr. Williams, who created a path, not only for himself but for others.

Who was Dr. Daniel Hale Williams?

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

Daniel Hale Williams III was born on January 18, 1856, in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, to Sarah Price Williams and Daniel Hale Williams II. The couple had several children, with the elder Daniel H. Williams inheriting a barber business. He also worked with the Equal Rights League, a Black civil rights organization active during the Reconstruction era.

After the elder Williams died, a 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 Williams's father, he took up barbering but ultimately decided he wanted 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.

Opens the First Interracial Hospital

Williams set up his practice in Chicago's South Side. He taught anatomy at his alma mater, also becoming the first African American physician to work for the city's street railway system. Williams — 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 time's discrimination, Black 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.

Completes Open-Heart Surgery

In 1893, Williams continued to make history when he operated on James Cornish, a man with a severe stab wound to his chest, brought to Provident. Without the benefits of a blood transfusion or modern surgical procedures, Williams successfully sutured Cornish's pericardium, the membranous sac enclosing the heart, thus becoming one of the first people to perform open-heart surgery. (Physicians Francisco Romero and Henry Dalton had previously performed pericardial operations.) Cornish lived for many years after the operation.

In 1894, Williams moved to Washington, D.C., where he was appointed the Freedmen's Hospital chief surgeon, which provided care for formerly enslaved African Americans. The facility had fallen into neglect and had a high mortality rate. Williams worked diligently on revitalization, improving surgical procedures, increasing specialization, launching ambulance services, and providing Black medical professionals opportunities, among other feats. In 1895, he co-founded the National Medical Association, a professional organization for Black medical practitioners, as an alternative to the American Medical Association, which didn't allow African-American membership.

Marriage and Later Career

Williams left Freedmen's Hospital in 1898. He married Alice Johnson, and the newlyweds moved to Chicago, where Williams returned to his work at Provident. Soon after, he worked at Cook County Hospital and later at St. Luke's, a large medical institution with ample resources.

In 1899, Williams also made annual trips to Nashville, Tennessee, where he was a voluntary visiting clinical professor at Meharry Medical College for more than two decades. He became a charter member of the American College of Surgeons in 1913.

Death and Legacy

Williams experienced a debilitating stroke in 1926 and died five years later, on August 4, 1931, in Idlewild, Michigan.

Today, Williams's work as a pioneering physician and advocate for an African-American presence in medicine continues to be honored by institutions worldwide.

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