Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, African-American medical pioneer

Janesville may not be the site of the world’s first successful heart surgery, nor the birthplace of Daniel Hale Williams, the surgeon who performed it, but the city is the birthplace of Dr. Williams’ careeDr. Hale's patient rests after open heart surgery. RCHS IF252 N6814. Original lent by DuSable Museum of African American Historyr.

Daniel Hale Williams was born in Hollidaysburg, Pa., in 1856. He came from a large family, and as the fifth of seven children, Williams had to start earning his keep at a young age. His mother sent him to Baltimore to apprentice for a shoemaker, but that path was not for him. Williams ran away from Baltimore and rejoined his family at their new home in Rockford, Ill.

As a teenager Williams moved to Janesville, Wis. There he worked as a barber and attended the Classical Academy studying bass violin. But Williams decided to trade in his scissors and strings for a scalpel when he met Dr. Henry Palmer. Palmer was not only a surgeon, but also a Civil War hero. He was nicknamed “the Fighting Surgeon” because, while stationed as the head of the military hospital in York, Pa., he armed civilians and wounded men, and repelled a Confederate force that was attacking the city.

Daniel Hale Williams became Dr. Palmer’s apprentice in 1877 and in 1880 Palmer helped Williams enter Chicago Medical School. Williams graduated in 1883 and began his medical practice in Chicago, where he was one of only four African-American doctors.

Williams’ skill and reputation grew and in 1889 he was appointed to the Illinois Board of Health. At this time, Williams began to address the problems facing Chicago’s African-American community. African-American students were rarely allowed into medical and nursing schools and African-American patients often received inferior medical care so Williams founded Provident Hospital — the city’s first multi-racial hospital— and a nursing school for African-Americans. The hospital employed white and African-American doctors and was dedicated to the belief that everyone deserved the best medical care possible.

It was at Provident Hospital in 1893 that Williams performed his famous heart surgery. His patient was James Cornish, a young man who had been stabbed in the chest. Cornish’s wound had been treated, but he was bleeding internally and would have soon died if not for Williams’ decision to perform surgery. He opened Cornish’s chest cavity and sutured a damaged blood vessel, and a tear in the tissue surrounding the heart.

Dr. Hale in his study at Freedma's Hospital. c. 1896.This surgery also was remarkable because, at a time when many patients died of infections, Williams was pioneering antiseptic techniques. He had opened up the man’s chest, repaired his heart and had done it without causing an infection. James Cornish made a full recovery and lived a long life because of Dr. Williams.

Daniel Hale Williams had a long and successful career as a surgeon and a medical professor. He was active in the NAACP and the National Medical Association, and continued to work for equal rights for minority patients and medical providers all of his life.

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