Daniel Hale Williams Pioneered Open-Heart Surgery

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams established the first Blackowned and operated hospital in the U.S.
Tamara Shiloh

Learning Black History Year Round

James Cor­nish had had a stressful day at work; so much so that instead of going home to cool his tem­per, he went to his favorite bar. It seemed that everyone was irritated because on that par­ticular day in Chicago, the heat remained oppressive long after dark.

A fight broke out that eve­ning, one that left a knife in Cornish’s heart. It was July 6, 1893, and surgery on the heart was unheard of; a stab in the heart was nearly always fatal. There was also no precedent for opening the chest. Thus Cornish, after being rushed to Provident Hospital, was expect to bleed to death.

But the outcome for Cornish would change when Dr. Dan­iel Hale Williams III took over Cornish’s case.

That night, Wiliams, known as “an academic doctor with a dash of bravado,” cut open Cornish’s chest, pulled back a rib, cleared away the blood, and then saw what he could do. Despite having little medical equipment and no idea what was going on inside of Cj>mish’s chest, Williams decided to be the first in the world to open a human chest and try to fix a human heart.

The pericardium, the sac around the heart, had received an injury that would, up until that day, have been fatal. Carefully, Williams stitched the tear in the sac closed with catgut and closed up the chest. The wait to see if Cornish would live or die began.

Cornish spent 51 days in the hospital, and he lived. Because of Williams’ brave actions, a surgery that had been inconceivable at the beginning of July was, by the end of September, a recognized medical possibility. The first open-heart surgery had been performed—successfully.

Williams, the eldest son of eight children, was born on January 18, 1856, in Hollidaysburg, Pa. His father, Daniel Hale Williams Jr., owned a barber business and worked with the Equal Rights League. His mother, Sarah Price Williams, was a homemaker.

Williams Jr. died of tuberculosis when young Daniel was age 10. The family then relocated to Baltimore, Md., continuing the barbering business. But Williams chose to pursue an education in medicine.

During his tenure at Chicago Medical College (1883), Williams worked as an apprentice with a highly skilled surgeon. Treating both Black and white patients, Williams practiced medicine in Chicago at a time when there were only three other Black physicians in the city.

Now a public hospital. Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses (renamed Provident Hospital of Cook County), established by Williams, was the first African- American owned and operated hospital in America. It was the first hospital in the country with a nursing and intern program that hired African Americans, and the first to have an interracial staff.

Williams experienced a debilitating stroke in 1926 and died five years later, on August 4,1931, in Idlewild, Mich. His work as a pioneering physician and advocate for an African- American presence in medicine continues to be honored by institutions worldwide.


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