Daniel Hale Williams, heart surgeon and visionary

As part of my 28 day writing challenge, which coincidentally falls during Black History Month, I plan to highlight some of Black Americans’ contributions to public health, medicine, and wellness. Born in rural Pennsylvania and raised in Baltimore, Daniel Hale Williams, MD, made his mark on medicine in Chicago. When a young woman named Emma Reynolds approached him for help after being denied admission to nursing school, they decided to open a nursing school specifically for Black women. The school would have a hospital associated with it, in part because the nurses would need somewhere to learn, but also because the few Black physicians in Chicago had limited or no admitting privileges in other hospitals.

Daniel Hale Williams successful open heart surgery

Securing funding from prominent Chicago leaders and residents of the surrounding community, the 12-bed Provident Hospital and Training School opened in in 1891. (Contemporary hospital administrators will appreciate that the entire budget for that year totaled $5,429.) Williams was named chief of staff, and Reynold enrolled in the first nursing class. Provident served all people, regardless of race, making it the first desegregated hospital in the United States.

While at Provident Hospital, Williams performed the surgery that would change medical history. When a stabbing victim named James Cornish was in danger of developing life-threatening cardiac tamponade due to a severed pericardium, the sac in which the heart sits, Williams knew he had to operate. He opened Cornish’s chest and found a severed artery and an inch-long tear in the pericardium. Williams repaired both. Cornish recovered, was discharged 51 days later, and lived for another 20 years, making Williams the second doctor to perform open heart surgery.

Of course, this made Williams quite famous. He was soon tapped to be the chief of surgery at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, DC. While there, Williams made major changes to the flagging hospital: new, multiracial staff; improved surgical practices; instituted ambulance service; opened a nursing school for black women; and provided staff positions for black doctors. Williams was also among the co-founders of the National Medical Association, created when Black doctors were denied membership in the American Medical Association.

Williams returned to Provident Hospital Chicago in 1898. He was bestowed with numerous awards and accolades, including being the first black man inducted into the American College of Surgeons. Williams continued working until his retirement in 1926. He lived the rest of his years in Idlewild, Michigan, a Black resort community that sounds pretty awesome based on the musical guests alone.

Williams was a revolutionary not only because his surgical prowess enabled him to perform groundbreaking surgery, but because he envisioned a world in which Black medical professionals were afforded the same privileges as white professionals, and he used his stature to work toward that goal. Despite the significant barriers to success that, as a Black man in the post-Civil War United States, he had to overcome, Williams not only championed men but ensured that women would also have a way into the medical field. We have much to thank Williams for, and should remember his contributions to medicine and health.