Meet Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, a black surgeon from Hollidaysburg, PA, who was an early pioneer and innovator in the medical field especially for black people in America during the late 1800s.
Daniel Hale Williams, born on January 18, 1856, was named after his father Daniel Williams, Jr. He was the fifth of six children born to Daniel Williams, Jr., and Sarah Price Williams.
Both his parents came from a racial mix of immigrants. His family was a mix of German immigrants, Native Americans, and free blacks who were active in the abolitionist movement as members of the National Equal Rights League. His father was a barber by profession. His mother was born from a free family in Annapolis, MD, headed by a clergyman.
The Williams family did well until his father died of consumption during a visit to Sarah’s family. Willams’ mother alone could not provide for the family unit. As a result, the Williams children were separated. Daniel was only 11 years old and was sent to Baltimore, MD, to work as a shoemaker’s apprentice.
For the next 6 years, he worked at a variety of odd jobs on lake boats and in barbershops like his father, to make ends meet. At 17 years old, he opened up a barbershop in Edgerton, WI, the town where one of his sisters lived. The business later failed, but Williams continued to cut hair part-time as he worked to finish high school in 1877.
A year later, he became an apprentice to Henry Palmer, a prominent surgeon and civic leader in Wisconsin. In 1880, after two years with Palmer, he was accepted into a college for medical studies.
Williams graduated from Chicago Medical College, what is now known as the Northwestern University Medical School, in 1883, during a time in America when Black doctors were not allowed to work in private hospitals. Truth be told, Black residents weren’t welcomed as patients either. Because of this, Williams went on to open a private practice after completing medical school that serviced both white and black patients. His practice eventually grew to become a training residency for doctors and training school for nurses in Chicago.
In 1891, Dr. Williams founded Provident Hospital located in Chicago, Illinois to make access to healthcare available for African-American residents, but the hospital was open to all regardless of their race making it the first non-segregated hospital in the United States. Provident Hospital, now a public hospital, was a trailblazer touting many firsts:
- Provident Hospital was the first private hospital in the State of Illinois to provide internship opportunities for black physicians.
- Provident Hospital was the first African-American owned and operated hospital in America.
- Provident Hospital was the first to establish a school of nursing to train black women
- Provident Hospital was the first black hospital to provide postgraduate courses and residencies for black physicians.
- Provident Hospital was the first black hospital approved by the American College of Surgeons for full graduate training in surgery.
Dr. Williams’ Provident Hospital, now known as Provident Hospital of Cook County, plays a pivotal role in the history of Black healthcare. It laid the groundwork for ideas about black self-determination and Black institutional survival overall.
Dr. Daniel Hale Williams’ accomplishments do not end there. In 1893, Dr. Williams performed the nation’s first documented, successful, pericardium surgery, commonly known as open-heart surgery. Williams completed the procedure without the benefit of X-rays, penicillin or blood transfusion, surgical prep-work, or tools of modern surgery. Dr. Williams’ patient, a young Black man named James Cornish, who initially suffered a knife wound to the heart, went on to survive for the following twenty years. Encyclopedia Britannica referred to this moment as “the first successful heart surgery.” The open-heart surgery took place at Provident Hospital and catapulted Williams and the hospital to the forefront of top medical institutions in the nation at that time.
Later in 1893, Williams was appointed surgeon-in-chief during President Grover Cleveland’s administration at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he established another school for African American nurses.
As if Dr. Williams wasn’t living his best life in 1893 professionally, personally he also met and married Alice Johnson, a school teacher and Howard University graduate, he met during his time in the nation’s capital. Notably, Johnson was the daughter of American sculptor Moses Jacob Ezekiel.
In 1895 he co-founded the National Medical Association for African-American Doctors, now known as the NMA or National Medical Association. The NMA was established as the collective voice of African American physicians and the leading force for parity and justice in medicine and the elimination of disparities in health. It is the nation’s oldest and largest organization representing African American physicians and health professionals in the United States. Today, the association represents more than 30,000 Black physicians.
After his tenure ended as the surgeon-in-chief in 1898, Willams and his wife Alice moved back to Chicago as Williams was appointed to the Illinois Department of Public Health, where he worked to raise medical and hospital standards. In addition to this role, he worked to create more hospitals that admitted African Americans outside of Chicago working as an attending surgeon at Cook County Hospital.
Williams went on to serve as a professor of Clinical Surgery at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee.
Following his professional success, the American College of Surgeons elected Williams as the first and only African-American charter member at that time in 1913.
Dr. Daniel Hale Willams died in relative obscurity at the age of 75 on August 4, 1931, after suffering a series of strokes at his retirement home in Idlewild, Michigan. His wife Alice preceded him in death by several years following complications of Parkinson’s disease.
After a distinguished history of service, Dr. Williams’ Provident Hospital closed its doors in 1987 after providing quality health care to the medically underserved for nearly a century due to rising hospital costs that made it difficult for inner-city hospitals to survive.
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