Breaking the Barrier: The Story of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams

Summer Blog Post #2 - Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Daniel Hale Williams was born on January 18th, 1865, in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, the fifth of seven children. His mother was of black, white and Indian descent and his grandmother was a slave. On his father’s side, Williams had African-American and Scottish-Irish blood. After the tragic death of his father, 10-year-old Daniel went to live in Baltimore, Maryland with family friends. In Baltimore, he became a shoemaker’s apprentice but did not enjoy the work. He decided to return to his family and took up barbering instead, the same trade as his late father. He quickly discovered that he wanted to pursue his education.

At age 20, Williams got the opportunity to work as an apprentice with a highly accomplished surgeon named Dr. Henry Palmer. He then completed further training at Chicago Medical College. After graduating in 1883, Williams set up his own private practice in the South Side of Chicago while teaching at his alma mater. He also served as a surgeon for the City Railway Company, becoming the first African American physician to do so. In 1889, the governor of Illinois appointed him to the state’s board of health.

In those days, African Americans were not allowed to be admitted to hospitals and Black doctors, including Williams himself, were refused staff positions. In 1891, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams opened Providence Hospital and Training School for Nurses, the first black hospital in the country with a nursing and intern program with a racially integrated staff.

In 1893, Williams made history when he operated on James Cornish. This man had suffered a severe stab wound to the chest and was brought to Providence Hospital. Williams became the first person to perform open-heart surgery when he successfully sutured Cornish’s wound and saved his life.

In 1894, Williams moved to Washington, D.C., where he was appointed the chief surgeon of Freedmen’s Hospital. Before his arrival, the facility had fallen into neglect and had a high mortality rate of more than 10 percent. Through the diligent efforts of Dr. Williams, the hospital was completely revitalized. Departments were reorganized, improvements to many surgical procedures were made and among a long list of other accomplishments, he continued to provide opportunities for Black medical professionals.

In 1895, he co-founded the National Medical Association, a professional organization for Black medical practitioners. This organization was an alternative to the American Medical Association, which did not allow African Americans to become members of their society.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams was the most prominent African American surgeon in the United States in the late 19th century, but his success was not for him alone. Throughout his career, Williams made a point to advocate for equal access to medical care and training for African Americans. His life story is an excellent example that one can and should both break the glass ceiling and raise the floor.

By: Anonymous