Daniel Hale Williams – The Trailblazer of Open Heart Surgery

dr daniel hale williams
Written by Tinaya Sallie

Born to Daniel and Sarah Williams on January 18th 1856 in Pennsylvania, Daniel Hale Williams was the fifth of seven siblings. Shortly after moving the family to Maryland, he died from tuberculosis and soon after that Daniel’s mother sent some of her children to stay with other family members, seeing that she couldn’t manage all of them by herself. His moving didn’t stop there. Eventually he got employed as a shoemaker’s apprentice in Baltimore then ran away to Illinois to rejoin his mother. Later on he moved to Wisconsin and joined his sister, then started his own barber shop.

Williams then became interested in with science and medicine after his moving quite close to Janesville. He was employed for two years as an apprentice to a physician Dr. Henry Palmer, and then enrolled into the school currently known as Northwestern University Medical School. In 1883, he graduated and opened his medical office in Illinois. Given the fact that the conditions to perform medical processes were very primitive in that time, this led to Williams having to do lots of house calls and few surgeries on kitchen tables. He also did his best to utilize sterilization practices which shed a good light on him as it relates to his level of professionalism. He was later offered the post of a surgeon at the South Side Dispensary, then later appointed to the Illinois State Board of Health in 1889.

Daniel Hale Williams opened the doors of his new establishment known as the Provident Hospital and Training School Association in 1891, which was made to serve the community. The school welcomed the utilization of doctors from all races and also served to train black nurses. In in first year the hospital recorded a success rate of 87% which was quite exceptional given the current financial conditions of other hospitals.

In 1893 an incident happened that would change his life forever. A young black man was stabbed in the chest with a knife after a bar fight. However by the time he reached Providence, he had already lost a lot of blood and was going into shock, so Williams was left with of opening the young man’s chest which was a preposterous thought back then. These types of surgeries were normally said to bring about lots of infections and eventually death. Nevertheless, Williams went ahead with operation, found the damage, sutured it, used proper sterilization practices and then sealed his chest. The young man James Cornish, made a full recovery and walked out of the hospital fifty-one days later and went on to live another fifty years.

The surgeon was quite busy with other matters, so he didn’t bother to make any notes of the surgery but the local newspapers did their part in ensuring that the feat got its deserved acclamation as being the first open heart surgery. In addition to that, he was the first surgeon to also successfully open a patient chest cavity without him dying via infection. His methods would then go on to set the foundation for internal surgeries in the future.

He was bestowed with numerous awards and accolades before and after his retirement from practicing medicine. He was also named a charter member of the American College of Surgeons and was a member of the Chicago Surgical Society. Williams passed away on the 4th of August 1931, subsequent to setting the bar for both black and white surgeons for many years to come.


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Tinaya Sallie

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