Williams, Daniel Hale 1856–1931
Daniel Hale Williams 1856–1931
Physician, surgeon, hospital administrator
Daniel Hale Williams was a pioneering heart surgeon at a time when technological discoveries were revolutionizing the practice of medicine. In 1893, he became the first physician to successfully perform open heart surgery by entering the chest cavity of a stabbing victim and repairing the heart sac. The young man on whom he operated went on to live another fifty years after the surgery.
Williams was also responsible for early advancements in the accessibility of health care to urban blacks in Chicago, opening Provident Hospital, the first interracial hospital in the United States, in 1891. Provident not only improved health care for black citizens, but also provided training and staff opportunities for young black men and women interested in pursuing a vocation in the medical field. Later in his career, as chief surgeon for the Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., Williams improved the hospital’s organization and offered both training programs for nurses and staff opportunities for doctors.
The fifth child in a family of seven, Williams was born five years before the outbreak of the Civil War and grew up in the booming town of Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, which was located at the connecting point of the Pennsylvania State Canal and the Portage Railroad. Williams’s mother, Sarah Price Williams, claimed black, white, and Indian ancestry. His maternal grandmother was a slave in Maryland who had lived on the same plantation as orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Williams’s paternal lineage was also mixed. His grandfather, Daniel Hale Williams I, was an African-American barbershop owner and preacher who had married a Scottish-Irish woman. Williams’s father, Daniel Hale Williams II, carried on the barber business. In addition, he crusaded for more and better education among blacks and was active in the Equal Rights League, which sought to gain equal rights for blacks following the Civil War.
In 1867, soon after the family moved to Annapolis, Maryland, Williams’s father died of consumption. His death caused the large family to splinter. Only ten years old, young Williams was sent to Baltimore to live with a family friend and apprentice as a shoemaker. Disliking the shoemaking trade he was forced to learn, he ran away, obtaining a railroad pass from an agent who had been friends with his father. Williams took the train to
Born Daniel Hale williams III, January 18, 1856, in Hollidaysburg, PA; died after suffering a stroke, August 4, 1931; married Alice Johnson, c. 1898. Education: Graduated from Chicago Medical School (now Northwestern University Medical School), 1883.
Physician and surgeon. Founder of Provident Hospital and Medical Center, 1891; performed first heart surgery, 1893; Freedmen’s Hospital, Washington, DC, administrator and surgeon in chief, 1894-98; appointed associate attending surgeon at Chicago’s St. Luke’s Hospital, 1912.
Member: American College of Surgeons (charter member), National Medical Association (founder and vice president).
Rockford, Illinois, to join his mother and sisters. When his mother returned east, he remained in Illinois and learned the barber’s trade, moving to Edgerton and then to nearby Janesville. He was befriended there by barber Harry Anderson, who took him in. Williams studied law for a short time following his high school graduation. Then, at the age of 22, he became an apprentice in the office of Dr. Henry Palmer, a local physician and respected surgeon who had directed the largest military hospital in the country during the Civil War.
In the late nineteenth century, few physicians received formal training at a medical school. Rather, most doctors learned their profession through serving apprenticeships with established physicians. Williams served the customary two-year apprenticeship with Dr. Palmer. Instead of opening his own practice, though, he decided in 1880 to attend Chicago Medical School, which later became the Northwestern University Medical School. After graduating in 1883, he opened an office in Chicago.
The 1880s marked the dawn of a new era in the field of medicine. Williams and other surgeons benefitted from the discoveries of Louis Pasteur in France and Joseph Lister in England, both of whom caused a revolution in the medical practice. Pasteur laid the foundations of bacteriology by proving the relationship between certain microorganisms and specific diseases. Lister applied Pasteur’s theories and revolutionized surgery by using antiseptics to kill germs when treating wounds. Williams practiced surgery from his office in Chicago, applying Lister’s principles of antiseptic surgery by scrubbing his entire room with soap and water. He then sprayed carbolic acid, a strong germ killer, and sterilized all his instruments in boiling water and steam to minimize the risk of infection.
Known to his patients and friends as Dr. Dan, Williams soon gained a reputation as a successful surgeon and was appointed to the surgical staff of the South Side Dispensary in Chicago. He also became a clinical instructor and demonstrator in anatomy at the Chicago Medical College, where one of his pupils was Charlie Mayo, future cofounder of the renowned Mayo Clinic. By the late 1880s, Williams had been named the first black surgeon to the City Railway Company and was appointed to the Illinois State Board of Health.
As late as 1890 blacks could not gain admission to hospitals, except charity wards, and black doctors could not aspire to hospital appointments. Williams started working to establish a hospital that would be managed and staffed by blacks as well as whites. He established the first interracial hospital, the Provident Hospital and Training School Association, in January of 1891. Provident provided a place for young black doctors to practice and trained a new generation of student nurses. The hospital opened in May of 1891, and seven of 175 applicants were accepted for the 18-month nurses’ training program.
By 1893, Provident Hospital was threatened by the economic depression of the times. However, Frederick Douglass attended the World’s Fair in Chicago that year and urged blacks to contribute to the institution. As a result of Douglass’s support, financial disaster was averted.
That same year, a saloon brawl in Chicago brought Williams national attention. A young black man named James Cornish had been stabbed in a neighborhood scuffle. He was rushed to Provident Hospital with a one-inch knife wound in his chest near his heart. By the time Williams could administer aid, Cornish had collapsed from loss of blood and shock. Risking his surgical reputation, Williams decided to operate—at that time without benefit of x-rays, blood transfusions, or antibiotics to fight infections. With six physicians witnessing the operation, he opened the patient’s chest cavity and saw that the knife used in the stabbing had penetrated the heart about a tenth of an inch. It had also cut the sac surrounding the heart, known as the pericardium.
Williams decided the heart muscle didn’t need sewing up, but he did suture the pericardium. It was a daring operation—the first time a surgeon had successfully entered the chest cavity and surgically explored the heart. Fifty-one days later, Cornish was released from the hospital. Completely recovered, the patient lived for another 50 years, outliving his surgeon by 12 years.
Following his unprecedented surgical intervention, Williams applied for the open position of chief surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. Set up after the Civil War to serve the medical and health needs of freed slaves and other black citizens, the hospital had deteriorated during the 12-year tenure of Dr. Charles B. Purvis. Under the Democratic administration of President Grover Cleveland, Williams received the appointment of chief surgeon. He was preparing to move to Washington in 1894 when he was wounded in the leg on a quail hunting trip in southern Illinois. An inflammation developed, and his life was threatened by the infection. Williams’s friend, Dr. Christian Fenger, treated the wound for six months, By the time he went to Washington in September of 1894, Williams was thin and frail.
Freedmen’s Hospital was threatened by indifference and neglect when Williams took over. Five wooden buildings built as emergency barracks served as hospital wards. Funding was much too low, the patient death rate was high, and there were no trained nurses on staff. Williams reorganized the hospital into seven departments, set up pathological and bacterial divisions, introduced modern surgical methods, and built a biracial staff of 20 specialists. Under Williams’s direction, Freedmen’s offered many black doctors their first chance at a hospital affiliation.
To overcome Freedmen’s image as a hospital only for the very poor, Williams began holding open clinics in surgery. He demonstrated and lectured, allowing the public to sit in an amphitheater and observe operations. This radically new program succeeded in rebuilding the hospital’s image. By 1896, the Freedmen’s Hospital was admitting five hundred surgical cases a year, and Williams had succeeded in significantly reducing the mortality rate to an unprecedented low. According to Dr. William A. Warfield, a student and successor to Dr. Williams who was quoted in Black Pioneers of Science and Invention, “Before Dr. Williams came to the hospital in 1894, there was no real surgical department. It can be said that with the arrival of Dr. Williams, surgical development began in all forms, especially abdominal. He was laying the foundation for more and better surgical work. By the time he left the hospital, a great impetus had been given to all branches of surgery.”
Williams resigned from his position as chief surgeon of Freedmen’s Hospital in February of 1898, following two years of political tension that had brewed under Republican President William McKinley. Then, at the age of 42, he married Alice Johnson, the daughter of an ex-slave and the well-known sculptor Moses Jacob Ezekiel. The couple returned to Chicago, where Williams resumed his position at Provident Hospital. In 1899, he conducted annual surgical clinics at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, which eventually led to the opening of Nashville’s first interracial hospital. Around this time, Williams also met Booker T. Washington, the president of Tuskegee Institute and an influential black leader of the time. Williams was in Atlanta to help organize the National Medical Association (NMA), an alternative organization for blacks, who at the time were restricted from participation in the American Medical Association. Williams became the NMA’s first vice president.
In 1912, Williams was honored with an appointment as associate attending surgeon at Chicago’s St. Luke’s Hospital, the largest, wealthiest, and most important hospital in city. Resigning his post at Provident Hospital, he served at St. Luke’s until his retirement from medicine and then lived for several years with his wife in northern Michigan. In 1926, Williams suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and ended his medical career. He died on August 4, 1931, at the age of 75.
Adams, Russell L., Great Negroes Past and present, third edition, Afro-Am, 1984.
Buckler, Helen, Daniel Hale Williams, Negro Surgeon, second edition, Pitman, 1968.
Haber, Louis, Black Pioneers of Science and Invention, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970.
Jenkins, Edward S., and others, American Black Scientists and Inventors, National Science Teachers Association, 1975.
Klein, Aaron E., The Hidden Contributors: Black Scientists and Inventors in America, Doubleday, 1971.
Patterson, Lillie, Sure Hands, Strong Heart: The Life of Daniel Hale Williams, Abingdon, 1981.
Ebony, February 1955; April 1967; September 1968.
Journal of the National Medical Association, May 1942; September 1970.
Negro Digest, February 1944.
Negro History Bulletin, January 1954.
Daniel Hale Williams
Daniel Hale Williams
Daniel Hale Williams (1856-1931), African American surgical pioneer and innovator, founded the first black voluntary hospital in the United States.
Daniel Hale Williams was born on Jan. 18, 1856, in Hollidaysburg, Pa. He attended school there and in Annapolis and Baltimore, Md. He eventually settled in Janesville, Wis., where he worked his way through the Janesville Classical Academy as a barber and bass violin player. After a medical preceptorship in Janesville, he received his medical degree from Chicago Medical College (affiliated with Northwestern University) in 1883. Following internship at Mercy Hospital in Chicago, he was appointed surgeon to the South Side Dispensary and demonstrator of anatomy at Northwestern. He continued to improve his surgery through anatomical dissection.
In 1891 Dr. Williams founded Provident Hospital in Chicago, where black patients were freely admitted and African American nurses trained. This was the first black voluntary hospital in America. It had an interracial staff and board of trustees. Newspaper reports of an operation he performed in 1893 gave him instant fame, as he was acclaimed the first physician to operate on the human heart. He did not publish his case until 1897, and there may, in fact, have been an earlier pericardial suture; the point remains unclear.
In 1894 Dr. Williams was appointed surgeon in chief of Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C., then the most prestigious medical post open to an African American, but hardly an inviting one. He remained here until 1898, when he resigned after controversies. He wrought many improvements in Freedmen's. He reduced its mortality rate, established its School of Nursing, appointed the first interns, acquired the first ambulance, and imposed discipline geared to the highest standards of excellence.
Returning to the Provident Hospital, Dr. Williams found a hostile climate engendered by a rival there. He continued to do excellent surgery but resigned in 1912. Thereafter, he did his surgery at St. Luke's Hospital, one of Chicago's largest and wealthiest hospitals, where, as an associate attending surgeon, he was held in high esteem by his white colleagues.
In 1913 Dr. Williams was inducted into the American College of Surgeons as a charter fellow, the first of his race. He had helped organize the National Medical Association in Atlanta, Ga., in 1895 to afford opportunities for improvement to black professionals. In 1900 he began annual visits to Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., serving without salary for over 25 years as visiting clinical professor of surgery. One writer commented: "He not only taught scientific medicine and surgery by precept and example but encouraged the founding of hospitals and training schools. His greatest pride was that directly or indirectly, he had a hand in the making of most of the outstanding Negro surgeons of the current generation."
Dr. Williams published nine creditable scientific papers. Wilberforce University and Howard University awarded him honorary degrees. He died on Aug. 4, 1931, at Idlewild, Mich. The Daniel Hale Williams Medical Reading Club in Washington, D.C., memorializes him.
Full-length biographical studies of Williams are Helen Buckler, Daniel Hale Williams: Negro Surgeon (1968), and Lewis Fenderson, Daniel Hale Williams: Open Heart Doctor (1970). A long account of his career is in Herbert M. Morais, The History of the Negro in Medicine (1968). Good accounts of his life are in Langston Hughes, Famous American Negroes (1954); Jay Saunders Redding, The Lonesome Road (1958); and Louis Haber, Black Pioneers of Science and Invention (1970). A brief biography is in Wilhelmena S. Robinson, Historical Negro Biographies (1968). The general medical background is given in Robert G. Richardson, Surgery: Old and New Frontiers (1970). □
Daniel Hale Williams
Daniel Hale Williams
African-American physician who performed one of the earliest open-heart operations. In 1893 a young stabbing victim was brought to Provident Hospital in Chicago. Williams opened the chest, exposed the heart, and sutured the wound in the pericardium, the membrane that covers the heart. Although at the time operating on the heart was considered impossible, the patient survived. Williams contributed to improvements in Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, DC, and other aspects of medical care and medical education for African-Americans.