BY WALTER OPINDE
Daniel Hale Williams was an African-American general surgeon, who in 1893 performed the second documented successful pericardium surgery (open heart surgery) to repair a patient’s wound in the United States. He is also known to be the founder of Provident Hospital; the first non-segregated hospital in the U.S., located in Chicago, Illinois.
Daniel Hale Williams entered the historical records as a pioneering surgeon best known for performing one of the world’s first successful open-heart surgeries, in 1893. Williams was born on 18th January, 1856, in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania to Sarah Price Williams and Daniel Hale Williams Snr. After the death of his father, Hale lived with family friends in Baltimore, Maryland, and with family in Illinois, from 1866 to 1878, where he was a shoemaker’s apprentice and barber until he decided to pursue his education.
In 1878, Williams’ interest in medicine began when he worked in the office of Henry Palmer, a Wisconsin surgeon. In 1880, he enrolled in the Chicago Medical College, receiving a doctorate in Medicine three years later. Immediately upon his graduation, Hale opened his own practice center in Chicago and taught anatomy at the Chicago Medical College. He became a trailblazer, setting high standards in medical procedures and sanitary conditions, including adopting recently-discovered sterilization procedures in regard to germ transmission and prevention. He also avoided the then-common practice of black doctors being barred from staff privileges in white hospitals by starting his own hospital.
In 1891, Williams co-founded the Provident Hospital and Training School Association in a three-story building on Chicago’s Southern Side. At a time when only 909 black physicians served about 7 million African-Americans, Provident was the first black-operated and owned hospital in the nation. Moreover, Provident was the first medical facility to have an interracial staff and the first training facility for the African-American nurses in the U.S. During Williams’s tenure as physician-owner (between 1891 and 1912), Provident Hospital commendably grew, largely due to its extremely high success rate in patient recovery, which stood at 87%.
In 1893, Williams daringly performed open heart surgery on a young black man, James Cornish, who had received severe stab wounds in his chest. Despite having a limited array of surgical equipment and medicine, Daniel Hale Williams opened Cornish’s chest cavity and operated on his heart without the patient dying from infection. Cornish recovered within a month and 21 days and lived on for the next 50 years.
Although he recognized the value of racial integration in the medical field, Williams Hale, in 1895 co-founded the National Medical Association (NMA). This was due to the fact that black medical practitioners were denied admission to the all-white American Medical Association. In 1898, Williams left the Freedmen’s Hospital, married Alice Johnson, and moved with her to Chicago where he returned to Provident Hospital. Among the numerous honors and awards bestowed on Williams, perhaps the most groundbreaking one was him becoming, in 1913, the first black member of the exclusive American College of Surgeons.
A year after settling in Chicago, Williams became affiliated with Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. Over the next two decades, he was a visiting clinical surgeon; he was also invited to work at larger hospitals including Cook County Hospital and St. Luke’s Hospital on Chicago’s South Side, where he served between 1907 and 1926. By 1926, Williams Hale retired from St. Luke’s Hospital after surviving a debilitating stroke. He died on 4th August, 1931, at the age of 75 years.
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