Daniel Hale Williams and More

Black History Month, Daniel Hale Williams, Provident Hospital, pericardial surgery, cardiology

As part of my series on Black History, I would like to discuss the “Father of Black Surgery,” Daniel Hale Williams.

Why is Daniel Hale Williams credited as being “one of the first physicians to perform open-heart surgery in the United States”? From the numerous sources I found, Williams has been credited with making advances in cardiology.

From The Huffington Post in 2012:

In 1893, exactly 119 years ago Monday, Chicago surgeon Daniel Hale Williams performed the first successful open-heart surgery, in what would become both a significant medical advancement, and a huge step in the fight for equality, since Williams was one of the nation’s few black cardiologists at the time.

The American Registry’s page on Daniel Hale Williams also said he performed “the first successful American open-heart surgery.”

UPI had this:

In 1893, Chicago surgeon Dr. Daniel Hale Williams performed the first successful open-heart surgery.

But the truth is the procedure Williams is known for could not be classified as open-heart surgery. It might not even be considered heart surgery, although it was part of an advance in medicine.

Additionally, this mischaracterization serves to undermine the many wonderful things Williams did to advance medicine and help African Americans advance.

The Life of Daniel Hale Williams

In 1893, Daniel Hale Williams was one of the first people to successfully perform pericardial surgery. Williams’ medical legacy spans over four decades and includes the opening of Provident Hospital and Training Center in the South Side of Chicago in 1891.

Early Life

Daniel Hale Williams III was born on January 18, 1856 in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania to Sarah Price Williams and Daniel Hale Williams II. Daniel Williams III was one of several children.

Daniel Hale Williams II inherited a barber business and worked with the Equal Rights League. (The ERL was a Reconstruction-era civil rights organization founded by African Americans.)

Daniel Hale Williams II died when his namesake was 10 years old. The younger Daniel then went on to live with family friends.

The younger Daniel Williams briefly worked as a shoemaker’s apprentice before moving back in with his family, who had moved to Illinois. Williams then took up barbering, like his father, before deciding that he wanted to pursue his education (Biography).

Williams apprenticed with Dr. Henry Palmer, an accomplished surgeon. Dr. Henry Palmer had three apprentices. They all went on to be accepted to special three-year medical school programs affiliated with Northwestern University (Chandler).

Next, Williams went to Chicago Medical College. He earned his M.D. in 1883 (Huffington Post).

When Williams began his medical practice in Chicago, he was one of four Black physicians working in Chicago. At the time, black patients were refused at many hospitals and black doctors were barred from staffing positions (“Provident”).

Williams first tried to combat the discrimination faced by Black patients by joining the Illinois State Board of Health. By being on the board, he hoped to change the racist rules (Chandler).

But it wasn’t until he met a young aspiring black nurse that he was able to make his greatest impact.

Founding Provident Hospital

Emma Reynolds was a young black woman who wanted to be a nurse. However, in 1889, she was rejected by all of Chicago’s nursing schools because of her race.

In response, Reynolds’ brother, Rev. Louis Reynolds, the pastor of St. Stephen’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, reached out to Daniel Hale Williams. The two later decided to create a new nursing school for black women.

By 1890, donations (including money, supplies, and equipment) came in from black individuals and organizations, as well as a few prominent white individuals. Rallies were held to collect the donations on Chicago’s south and east sides.

The Reverend Jenkins Jones secured a part of the down payment from the Armour Meat Packing Company for a three-story brick house on 29th and Dearborn. The building, which would be filled with 12 beds, became the first location of Provident Hospital.

Williams opened the Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses on Chicago’s South Side in May 1891. The hospital had an interracial staff, which included interns and nurses. It was the first hospital to have an interracial staff. The hospital employed sterilization procedures inspired by the studies of Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister.

In 1892, the first nursing students, seven women, included Emma Reynolds.

Dr. Austin Curtis was among the first surgical interns. He studied directly under Dr. Williams for two years before moving on to work at the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. Dr. Curtis was the first black surgeon-in-chief at the hospital (“Provident”).

Performing Pericardial Surgery

On July 9, 1893, a young man named James Cornish came into Provident Hospital with stab wounds across his chest and near his heart.

Williams was able to suture Cornish’s pericardium, “the membranous sac enclosing the heart.” Cornish was able to live for a good amount of time after the successful operation.

Williams was only one of the first surgeons to perform pericardial surgery on a patient. Physicians Francisco Romero and Henry Dalton perform pericardial operations before him (Biography).

The Rest of His Medical Career

The next year (1894), Williams moved to Washington, D.C. He was appointed the chief surgeon of Freedman’s Hospital, a medical facility for formerly enslaved African Americans. He would serve there until 1898.

When Williams first worked at the hospital, it had fallen into disrepair and it had a high mortality rate. The physician improved conditions at the hospital by:

  • Improving surgical procedures.
  • Increasing specialization.
  • Launching ambulance services.
  • Providing more opportunities for black medical professionals.

In 1895, Williams co-founded the National Medical Association. The NMA served as a professional organization for black medical practitioners. At the time, the American Medical Association did not accept black applicants.

Williams married Alice Johnson and the two immediately moved to Chicago. Williams returned to his work at Provident.

After the turn of the century, Williams worked at Cook County Hospital. He later worked at St. Luke’s.

Williams also made annual trips to Nashville, Tennessee. There, he served as a voluntary visiting clinical professor at Meharry Medical College for over 20 years. In 1913, Williams became a charter member of the American College of Surgeons.

In 1926, Daniel Hale Williams suffered a severe stroke. He died five years later, on August 4, 1931 in Idlewild, Michigan (Biography).

Extending the Real Legacy of Daniel Hale Williams

The hospital Williams built would expand and move locations two times. In 1896, a funding campaign started to construct a new building on donated land at 36th and Dearborn. The new hospital opened in 1898 with 65 beds. In 1933, as part of its affiliation with the University of Chicago, Provident purchased a building at 426 East 51st Street, which was the old location of the Chicago Lying-in Hospital. A four-story outpatient center and nursing school were built, too.

The hospital suffered two financial crises. The first, in the 1940’s was “narrowly averted.” The second lead to the six-year closure of the hospital in September 1987.

In 1991, the Cook County Board of Commissioners bought Provident Hospital. It would reopen in August 1993 (“Provident”). The hospital still stands today.

Advances in Cardiology

I would like to talk about some of the advances that lead to the first successful open-heart surgery.

Open-heart surgery wasn’t performed to help James Cornish, which would have been impossible at the time. At the time Williams operated, there were no blood transfusions, which would have allowed such an operation, along with cooling apparatuses. Those wouldn’t be available for another 50-60 years.

Laying the Foundation for Open-Heart Surgery

Blood transfusions were pioneered during World War II. Military doctors also made advances in antibiotics and anesthesia.

Dr. Dwight Harken

Dr. Dwight Harken, a U.S. Army surgeon, figured out how to operate on human hearts during the war with making advancements in the three above areas. He first tested his techniques on animals, with three test groups of 14. In the first trial, all his test subjects died. Half died during the second trial. But only 2 died in his final trial.

When Harken operated on humans who had shrapnel lodged in their hearts, he never lost a patient. He figured out how to operate on still-beating hearts and remove the shrapnel. He would later find out that this technique could be used for another heart condition.

In 1948, Harken and Dr. Charles Bailey worked within days of each other to develop a procedure to correct mitral stenosis. Mitral stenosis is a condition where the mitral valve of the heart narrows and won’t open properly.

In their quest to correct the condition, the doctors cut a small hole in each heart they worked on and inserted a finger in the hole to try and widen the valve. The primary attempts were fatal. It would take an improved technique to successfully develop what would be known as closed-heart surgery.

For more serious heart conditions, like congenital heart defects, doctors would need to operate from inside the heart. But early on, doctors could only stop a patient’s blood circulation for four minutes. Anything past that point would cause brain damage from oxygen deprivation.

Dr. Bill Bigelow

While working at the University of Minnesota, Canadian surgeon Bill Bigelow found a way to safely slow down a patient’s blood circulation for longer periods of time. After observing how hibernating animals could survive cold winters, Dr. Bigelow figured that humans could be operated on for longer periods of time if they body temperatures were lowered. The body needs less oxygen at lower temperatures, so a heart patient could be under for much longer than four minutes and still have a chance to survive surgery.

The First Successful Open-Heart Surgery

On September, 1952, two more University of Minnesota surgeons, Dr. Walton Lillehei and Dr. F. John Lewis attempted the first open heart surgery. The two operated on a 5-year-old girl who was born with a hole in her heart.

The girl was cooled with a special blanket to lower her body temperature to 81°F. This bought the doctors 10 minutes, in which they emptied her heart of blood, cut open her heart, and quickly sewed up the hole. The girl was immersed in a warm bath to get her body temperature back up to normal (“Pioneers”).


While Williams did not perform the first open-heart surgery — or the first successful pericardial surgery — much of his work was important in the annals of medicine, the professional advancement of black doctors and nurses, and for citizens who need health care. He extended the life of a young man. He gave blacks opportunities where they otherwise wouldn’t have them in a segregated area, and the hospital he helped build still serves the area.

Works Cited

Biography.com Editors. “Daniel Hale Williams Biography.” Biography.com. Last Updated 5 Aug 2015. Web. Retrieved 8 Feb 2017. <http://www.biography.com/people/daniel-hale-williams-9532269>.

Chandler, D.L. “Black Cardiologist Performs 1st Successful Open-Heart Surgery 119 Years Ago On This Date.” News One.” News One. 9 July 2012. Web. Retrieved 22 Feb 2017. <http://newsone.com/2024415/daniel-hale-williams/>.

“Daniel Hale Williams Performed Nation’s First Open Heart Surgery In Chicago 119 Years Ago (VIDEO).” The Huffington Post. 9 July 2012. Web. Retrieved 15 Feb 2017. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/09/daniel-hale-williams-perf_n_1659949.html>.

NOVA. “Pioneers of Heart Surgery.” PBS. 8 Apr 1997. Web. Retrieved 8 Feb 2017. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/pioneers-heart-surgery.html>.

“Provident Hospital.” The Provident Foundation. Copyright 2000-2014. Web. Retrieved 22 Feb 2017. <http://providentfoundation.org/index.php/history/>.

“Provident Hospital of Cook County.” Cook County Health and Hospitals System. Web. Retrieved 22 Feb 2017. Web. <http://www.cookcountyhhs.org/locations/provident-hospital/>.

Smith, Jessie Carney. “Black Surgeon Performs the First Successful Open-Heart Surgery in America.” African American Registry. Visible Ink Press. Detroit, Michigan; 1994. Web. <http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/black-surgeon-performs-first-sucessful-open-heart-surgery-america>.

The United Press International. “On This Day in History – July 9th – Almanac. UPI.com. 9 July 2012. Web. Retrieved 22 Feb 2017. Web. <http://www.upi.com/Odd_News/2012/07/09/The-almanac/UPI-93591341819000/>.


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