Celebrating Black History Month – Daniel Hale Williams

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Cameron Jacobs, Senior Reporter

On July 10th, 1893 Daniel Hale Williams, a black man, performed the first documented open-heart surgery in the United States to repair a wound. 

This extraordinary feat was just one of the countless accomplishments Williams made to American medicine and African-American representation in the medical field.

Williams was born on January 18th, 1856 in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania to a Scots-Irish mother and Black father as the fifth of seven children. He spent his young life in Annapolis, Maryland.

When he was 9 years old, his father died of tuberculosis leaving his mother financially unable to support all of her children. Williams left with his older sister to start a barbershop in Edgerton, Wisconsin.

It was here that Williams became fascinated with medicine after seeing the work of the local physician. 

He began an apprenticeship to Dr. Henry Palmer and studied under him for two years before enrolling in Chicago Medical College, now known as Northwestern University Medical School. 

Upon graduation in 1883, he opened his own private medical practice in Chicago, Illinois, and served both white and black patients.

At the time, black doctors were not allowed to work in America’s private hospitals, so in 1891 he founded Provident Hospital, the country´s first interracial hospital and nursing school.

Provident was founded to provide an equal employment opportunity for both African American and White doctors and give crucial access to quality healthcare for blacks in the Greater Chicago Area.

While at Provident, Williams became the first American to perform open-heart surgery to repair a patient’s torn pericardium (a fibrous membrane that encases the heart).

The patient, James Cornish, was stabbed in the chest and the blade had torn a significant gash in the pericardium. 

After the surgery, Cornish would make a full recovery in the hospital and go on to live for 20 more years.

Later that year, Williams was appointed by President Grover Cleveland as surgeon-in-chief of Howard University Hospital, the most prestigious medical post in America for black doctors at the time

He would hold that position for six years before returning to Chicago to help train black nurses at Provident. 

It was also at this time that he co-founded the National Medical Association, which is now the largest and oldest organization representing black physicians in America.

After retiring, he moved to Idlewild, Michigan and died in relative obscurity.

Williams was the living embodiment of what it means to fight for equality when few others were, and the improvements he made in medicine are invaluable.

Stories like his are the reason Black History Month is important.