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.

Rebecca Crumpler, MD / trailblazer

Rebecca Crumpler the first black female doctorThough Black History Month as a concept is imperfect, it does remind us that the history we learn in school isn’t actually the whole story. Even in public health, most of the revered pioneers are white males: John Snow, Walter Reed, Joseph Goldberger (of pellagra scab-eating fame). 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. This post is a brief biosketch of Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first African American woman to earn an MD. Around 1833, Rebecca Crumpler, born Rebecca Lee, was born to free parents in Delaware. Crumpler was raised by her aunt, who cared for the sick in their community. Because of this proximity to healing, Crumpler decided to dedicate her life to medical care. She worked for eight years as a nurse, and the doctors with whom she worked wrote her medical school recommendation letters.

Crumpler attended the New England Female Medical College, where she recieved a Doctress of Medicine (MD) degree in 1864. At the end of the Civil War, she moved to Richmond, VA. There she found “a proper field for real missionary work...ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children.” She worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau alongside other Black doctors, caring for freed slaves who would otherwise have no way to obtain medical care.

She later moved to Boston, with her new husband Arthur Crumpler, and started a medical practice for women children regardless of their ability to pay. She practiced in Boston from 1869 to 1880, when she retired to write one of the first medical texts written by an African American, “A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts.” The book focused on her specialty, women’s and children’s health.

Her book also included a little dating and marriage advice, as well. She instructs that “it is best for a young woman to accept a suitor who is respectable, vigorous, industrious, but a few years her senior, if not equal age.” The key to a successful marriage: “continue the careful routine of the courting days.”

Crumpler died in 1895. She was a trailblazer in every sense of the word. She defied others’ expectations based on her race and gender, and used her skills and passion to help relieve suffering. Though nearly everything we know about her comes from the introduction to her book, the sliver of knowledge we have of Crumpler’s life is more than enough to prove she was an extraordinary woman.

Action Phase Podcast Episode 3

Doctor burnout is a serious problem, not only for the doctors themselves, but for the quality of care patients receive. I talk with Dr. Pamela Wible, advocate for Ideal Medical Care, about creating clinics that truly meet the needs of the community they serve while maintaining doctors' sanity. You can download the link by going here and saving the page as an mp3.

Or listen to it right here!