Williams, Daniel Hale (1856–1931)

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Date: 2011
African American Eras: Segregation to Civil Rights Times
From: African American Eras: Segregation to Civil Rights Times(Vol. 3: Government and Politics, Health and Medicine, Law and Justice. )
Publisher: UXL
Document Type: Biography
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 3)

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About this Person
Born: January 18, 1856 in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, United States
Died: August 04, 1931 in Idlewild, Michigan, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Physician
Full Text: 
Page 504

Daniel Hale Williams (1856–1931)

Surgeon, teacher, and hospital administrator Daniel Hale Williams achieved a place in medical history in 1893 when he performed the first open heart surgery on a patient with a stab wound in his chest. The young man on whom he operated made a complete recovery and lived for another fifty years. This operation was only one of Williams’s many achievements. He also founded Provident Hospital in Chicago, the first African American–owned hospital, that provided opportunities and training for black doctors and nurses. He achieved similar successes as chief surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. Throughout his nearly forty-year career in medicine, Williams worked tirelessly to make health care more accessible for African Americans, both as patients and practitioners.

Decides on a Career in Medicine

Williams was born on January 18, 1856, to Daniel Williams Jr. and Sarah Price Williams in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. He was the youngest Page 505  |  Top of Articleof five children. His father died when Williams was eleven, and Williams was apprenticed to a shoemaker in Baltimore. His mother moved to Rockford, Illinois. Williams disliked learning how to make shoes and he ran away to Rockford to join his mother. When his mother returned to the East, Williams remained in Illinois, finding work in a barbershop. He moved to Edgerton, Wisconsin, and then to Janesville, Wisconsin. He became a guitarist in a band, graduated from Jefferson High School, and enrolled in Haire’s Classical Academy in Janesville, graduating in 1877.

Williams then studied law for a while but was drawn to medicine. He found a position as assistant to Henry Palmer, a local doctor, and educated himself in the evenings by reading medical texts. He served a two-year apprenticeship with Palmer and then enrolled in Chicago Medical College in 1880. He was just about able to pay the fees with money earned as a laborer on a lake steamer and the assistance of friends and family.

Williams graduated with a medical degree in 1883. African Americans were not employed as doctors in hospitals at the time, so he set up his own practice in Chicago. Sometimes he would have to operate on patients in their own homes.


Daniel Hale Williams. Daniel Hale Williams. © Bettmann/Corbis

Founds Hospital, Performs Open Heart Surgery

Williams recognized the need for a hospital that served African American patients with African American doctors and nurses. His goal was to establish such a hospital. He accomplished this goal with the fund-raising help of various organizations and churches in 1891. Provident Hospital and Training School Association was the first hospital in the United States that was owned by African Americans, although it accepted patients of all races. Thanks largely to the rigorous standards established by Williams, the hospital soon established a mortality ratio (actual deaths of patients divided by the expected number of deaths) that was superior to that of other area hospitals.

Williams became the first surgeon to perform successful open heart surgery in 1893. James Cornish, a young black man who had been stabbed in the chest in a fight, was admitted to Provident Hospital. After giving Page 506  |  Top of Articlethe patient a local anesthetic (a medicine that numbs the body), Williams repaired the torn pericardium (a membrane that surrounds the heart). The operation was a risky one, since Williams had no x-rays, blood transfusions, or antibiotics available. Despite these obstacles, Cornish made a full recovery. The operation was reported in the Chicago press, and Williams began to develop a reputation for his surgical skills. He would later perform many more successful heart operations.

Chief Surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital

Williams was appointed chief surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., in 1894. He showed his administrative skills by reorganizing the hospital to better serve its patients. He established departments for each specialty, provided ambulance services, and improved the nurses’ training program. He insisted on high standards in all areas of the hospital. One of his goals was to overcome the image of Freedmen’s as a hospital that served only very poor people. To this end, he allowed the public to observe operations from an amphitheater (a room that allowed people to observe surgeries), and he lectured and gave demonstrations. This ambitious program to educate the public improved the status of the hospital. Within two years, Freedmen’s was admitting five hundred surgical cases a year.

Williams’s time at Freedmen’s was not without setbacks. His methods aroused opposition from some, and Williams himself grew frustrated at some of the federal rules and regulations he was obliged to observe. (Freedmen’s at this time was owned by the federal government.) Williams resigned in 1898 and returned to Provident Hospital as chief surgeon. This was also the year he married Alice D. Johnson. Their only child died at birth in 1899.

Williams devoted much of his time to improving health care for African Americans. He helped to found forty hospitals in twenty states, and he urged African Americans to take an active part in developing new institutions that would serve their interests. Williams was appointed to the Illinois State Board of Health in 1889. He co-founded the National Medical Association for black physicians and became its first vice president in 1895. He founded the Medico-Chirurgical Society, a group of doctors consisting of whites as well as African Americans. He helped to train medical students and physicians at several hospitals, including Municipal Hospital in St. Louis and Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. He did not charge Meharry for his services as visiting clinical professor of surgery for twenty-five years. When the American College of Surgeons was formed in 1913, Williams was the only African American to be a charter member. He was also a member of the Chicago Surgical Society.

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In 1912, Williams became associate attending surgeon at St. Luke’s Hospital, the largest hospital in Chicago. He served there until his retirement from medicine in 1920. In his later years, Williams suffered from diabetes. He had a disabling stroke in 1925. More strokes in subsequent years left him an invalid. He died on August 4, 1931, at his home in Idlewild, Michigan.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2334900219