Dr. Daniel Hale Williams: Pioneer of MedicineJan 18, 2021 08:00AM ● By Kassidy Garland
Daniel Hale Williams was born on January 18, 1856 in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania to Sarah Price Williams and Daniel Hale Williams II. Williams’ parents moved him and his seven siblings to Annapolis, Maryland, and not long after, his father passed away from tuberculosis. With his mother now unable to care for all of her children, some were sent to live with other family members.
Daniel Hale Williams was apprenticed to a shoemaker in his youth, but ran away to join his mother. He then decided to open a barbershop like his father and grandfather, but he did not find enjoyment in this line of work either. Williams decided to pursue his education, and he worked as an apprentice with Dr. Henry Palmer, a highly accomplished surgeon. After his apprenticeship, he completed further training at Chicago Medical College.
On Chicago’s South Side, Dr. Williams set up his very own medical practice and taught anatomy at his alma mater. Williams was one of the first to adopt sterilization procedures for his office, having been informed by the recent findings on germ transmission and prevention from Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister.
Dr. Williams, or Dr. Dan as he was known by his patients, was known to be very skilled and considerate. His practice grew quickly because he treated both Black and White patients, and in 1889, he was appointed to the Illinois State Board of Health (now known as the Illinois Department of Public Health).
Because of the segregation laws of the time, African Americans were still now allowed to be admitted to hospitals, and the staff was not to allow Black employees. This did not sit well with Dr. Williams so, in 1891, he opened Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses, which was the country’s first with an integrated staff.
In 1893, at the age of 37, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams became the first surgeon to perform a successful open heart surgery on a human. The surgery was performed at Provident hospital and was done without X-rays, antibiotics, surgical prepwork, or modern medical tools. His patient, James Cornish, survived and was discharged 51 days after his surgery.
He was considered a pioneer in his field, and in 1894, Dr. Dan moved to Washington, DC, where he continued his work on health disparitie. He made sure to promote the hiring of a multiracial staff to better serve patients and their families. In 1895, he co-founded the National Medical Association, a professional organization for black medical practitioners. This organization was created due to the denial of Black members in the all-white American Medical Association.
Three years later, Dr. Williams married Alice Johnson, and returned to Provident. He practiced medicine at a number of different hospitals and continued his work, even becoming a charter member of the American College of Surgeons in 1913.
Williams’s wife Alice passed away in 1924, and in 1926, Dr. Williams experienced a stroke. Five years later, on August 4, 1931, Dr. Williams died in Idlewild, Michigan. 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, making him a surgical pioneer that would influence the field of modern medicine.