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Black History Month Spotlight: Dr. Daniel Hale Williams Performed First Successful Heart Surgery

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As we continue our safety series during Black History Month spotlighting African Americans who played pivotal roles in helping keep Americans safe through their inventions and/or cutting-edge innovations, we must focus our attention this week on Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, who performed the first successful heart surgery in the United States.

It is impossible to count the thousands of lives his pioneering surgical innovation has saved throughout the years. I believe it is important for us to take time and examine his life before and after his successful heart surgery. This safety article will briefly highlight this incredible man’s journey.

He was born on January 18, 1856, in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania to Daniel Williams Jr. and Sarah Price. He was the fifth of the six children born to the Williams family. The Williams family’s great grandfather was listed in the 1790 U.S. census for Philadelphia City as “other free,” which was a designation that referred to Black Americans.

His family moved to Annapolis, Maryland and when Williams was nine his father died of tuberculosis. Understanding the magnitude of rearing six children, his mother sent some of her children to live with relatives. Williams became an apprentice to a shoemaker in Baltimore, Maryland, but ran away to join his mother who then lived in Rockford, Illinois. He later moved with his sister to Edgerton, Wisconsin and opened his own barber shop. While there, Williams became fascinated by the work of a local physician and decided to follow his path.

He began working as an apprentice to the physician Dr. Henry W. Palmer, studying with him for two years. In 1880, Williams entered Chicago College, now known as Northwestern University Medical School. His education was funded by Mary Jane Richardson, a prominent activist and leader of Chicago’s Black community. After graduation he opened his own medical office in Chicago.

 

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams performed the first successful heart surgery in the United States. (Public Domain)

His patients were both Black and white, but Black doctors were not allowed to work in American private hospitals. This prompted Williams to found Provident Hospital which provided health care for African American residents. The hospital also provided a training residency for doctors and training school for nurses in Chicago. Both the staff and patients at Provident Hospital were integrated.

Where other surgeons had performed pericardium wound repair surgeries before Williams, he was the first on July 10, 1983, to successfully repair the torn pericardium of a knife wound directly through the left fifth costal cartilage sustained by James Cornish.  He performed this surgery without the benefit of penicillin or blood transfusion. He undertook a second procedure to drain the fluid and after about 50 days, Cornish was discharged from Provident Hospital.

In 1893, during the administration of President Grover Cleveland, Williams was appointed surgeon-in-chief of Freedman’s Hospital, in Washington D.C., a post he held until 1898. He later was a Professor of Clinical Surgery at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee and an attending surgeon at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. He worked to create more opportunities for Blacks to be admitted into hospitals in our country.

In 1895, he co-founded the National Medical Association for African- American doctors and in 1913 he became a charter member and only African American doctor in the American College of Surgeons.

Williams married Alice Johnson in 1898. He passed Aug. 4, 1931, almost in obscurity, yet there are many schools named in his honor. His home in Chicago was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.