Celebrating Black History

Black doctor put medicine on new course

Dr. Ronald Turco | 2/9/2016, 4:02 p.m.
How many of us are familiar with the name of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams? The African American physician was one ...
Dr. Daniel Hale Williams was one of the first physicians to perform open-heart surgery in the United States and founded a hospital with an interracial staff.

How many of us are familiar with the name of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams? The African American physician was one of the most skilled surgeons of his era. In 1893, at Provident Hospital in Chicago, a medical center which he founded, he performed the first fully successful open heart surgery, including the repair of knife wound on the pericardium.

Dr. Williams was born in Hollidaysburg, Penn. in 1865. His father was a barber who worked for better conditions for African American people, started a group called the Equal Rights League, and believed in the value of a good education. He died when Daniel was 11.

The younger Williams became a barber and had his own shop at age 17. Eventually he was accepted to Janesville Academy, similar to a two year college. Wanting to make people feel good and have a “noble profession” he apprenticed in 1878 with Dr. Henry Palmer, a leading surgeon. After two years of apprenticeship he needed formal medical training but had no money. He borrowed money for the first two years of medical school and his brother, by this time a practicing attorney, paid for his third year.

He received his M.D. degree from Chicago Medical College, affiliated with Northwestern University, in 1883 at the age of 27.

Because of his race, Dr. Williams couldn’t work at any hospital. He had his first office while volunteering in an orphanage. He worked in patients’ homes and once had to sterilize a patient’s dining room so she could have surgery. He occasionally conducted surgeries on kitchen tables, yet utilized the up-to-date sterilization procedures of his day thus gaining a reputation for professionalism and competence.

In 1883 he was only one of four African American doctors in the Chicago area and six years later was appointed to the Illinois Board of Health. While there he recommended vaccinations for typhoid, scarlet fever and smallpox, fully understanding sanitation problems.

He started a new hospital, the Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses, especially to help black members of the medical profession. He observed that African-American patients were routinely subject to second-class medical care and that opportunities for most black physicians were extremely limited.

Many African Americans were moving to Chicago and an old building big enough for 12 beds was found. This became the first hospital with black doctors and nurses, the first in the country that was black-owned, operated and managed, and the first racially integrated hospital in the city as well as the first hospital for black women in the United States.

He employed African-American and white doctors and emphasized the need to provide the best available care for everyone, requiring doctors at the hospital to keep abreast of the latest advances in medicine. The hospital had a phenomenal 87 percent success rate, especially considering the financial and health conditions of most patients and the primitive conditions of most hospitals.

It was here in 1898 that a man was brought in with a stab wound to the chest. Dr. Williams operated on the man, stitching up the heart itself and thus becoming the first person to ever perform open heart surgery. This was almost unheard of at the time, as entrance into the chest or abdomen of a patient would almost surely bring resulting infection and death.