January 18, 1856 – August 4, 1931
Born in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, Daniel Hale Williams III was the eldest son out of his parents’ eight children. Williams’ father worked as a barber in a business he’d inherited and was an active member of a Black civil rights organization. The death of the elder Williams when Williams III was 10-years-old resulted in him being sent to Baltimore, Maryland to live with family for approximately 12 years.
While in Baltimore Williams apprenticed as a shoemaker before entering his family’s barber business. Ultimately, Williams decided to further his education and began working as an apprentice in the office of Dr. Henry Palmer, a successful surgeon. He went on to study medicine at Chicago Medical College from which he graduated in 1883 with a Doctor of Medicine degree.
At the time, many Black doctors were prevented from practicing medicine in White hospitals. To circumvent this obstacle, he co-founded the Provident Hospital and Training School Association on the South Side of Chicago. The hospital achieved several firsts such as having an interracial staff, providing training for Black nurses, and being Black-owned and controlled. Williams was amongst the first doctors to adopt sterilization practices to reduce and prevent the transmission of germs. Provident achieved an 87% patient recovery rate and grew substantially during the period that Williams’ oversaw the hospital.
In 1893, a young Black man named James Cornish was brought to Provident with severe stab wounds to the chest. It’s believed that two other doctors performed pericardial surgeries around this time but the medical community generally frowned upon treating heart wounds with surgery. Williams opened Cornish’s chest cavity to examine and close the internal wounds to the heart. Cornish took a little under 60 days to recover but lived for 50 more years. Given the time, this was especially significant because the operation was performed without the aid of blood transfusions, anesthesia, or antibiotics.
The success of the surgery brought Williams national attention and the position of Chief Surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. one year later. The hospital suffered from neglect and the formerly enslaved African Americans it served faced high mortality rates. Williams implemented many of his practices from Provident Hospital which helped to rehabilitate Freedmen’s.
Around this time, Williams also founded the National Medical Association to further his goal of providing equal opportunities for Black medical professionals. The American Medical Association was already in existence but did not allow Black people to be members.
Williams married Alice Johnson in 1898 and returned to Chicago where he rejoined the staff at Provident. Over the next few years, Williams became a visiting professor at Meharry Medical College and also worked at Cook County Hospital as well as St. Luke’s. In 1913, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams became the only Black member of the American College of Surgeons.
Dr. Williams suffered a severe stroke in 1926 which prompted his retirement from St. Luke’s. He spent the rest of his life in an all-Black resort community in Idlewild, Michigan until his death in 1931.
- “Daniel Hale Williams.” 2019. Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. July 29, 2019. https://www.biography.com/scientist/daniel-hale-williams.
- “Daniel Hale Williams and the First Successful Heart Surgery.” n.d. Columbia University Department of Surgery. Accessed November 26, 2019. https://columbiasurgery.org/news/daniel-hale-williams-and-first-successful-heart-surgery.
- Ruffin, Herbert G. 2019. “Daniel Hale Williams (1856-1931)” BlackPast. May 20, 2019. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/williams-daniel-hale-1856-1931/.
- “Who Was Dr. Daniel Hale Williams?” n.d. Jackson Heart Study Graduate Training and Education Center. Jackson State University. Accessed November 26, 2019. http://www.jsums.edu/gtec/dr-daniel-hale-williams/.
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