Daniel Hale Williams (1856-1931), African American surgical pioneer and innovator, founded the first black voluntary hospital in the United States.
Daniel Hale Williams was born on Jan. 18, 1856, in Hollidaysburg, Pa. He attended school there and in Annapolis and Baltimore, Md. He eventually settled in Janesville, Wis., where he worked his way through the Janesville Classical Academy as a barber and bass violin player. After a medical preceptorship in Janesville, he received his medical degree from Chicago Medical College (affiliated with Northwestern University) in 1883. Following internship at Mercy Hospital in Chicago, he was appointed surgeon to the South Side Dispensary and demonstrator of anatomy at Northwestern. He continued to improve his surgery through anatomical dissection.
In 1891 Dr. Williams founded Provident Hospital in Chicago, where black patients were freely admitted and African American nurses trained. This was the first black voluntary hospital in America. It had an interracial staff and board of trustees. Newspaper reports of an operation he performed in 1893 gave him instant fame, as he was acclaimed the first physician to operate on the human heart. He did not publish his case until 1897, and there may, in fact, have been an earlier pericardial suture; the point remains unclear.
In 1894 Dr. Williams was appointed surgeon in chief of Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C., then the most prestigious medical post open to an African American, but hardly an inviting one. He remained here until 1898, when he resigned after controversies. He wrought many improvements in Freedmen's. He reduced its mortality rate, established its School of Nursing, appointed the first interns, acquired the first ambulance, and imposed discipline geared to the highest standards of excellence.
Returning to the Provident Hospital, Dr. Williams found a hostile climate engendered by a rival there. He continued to do excellent surgery but resigned in 1912. Thereafter, he did his surgery at St. Luke's Hospital, one of Chicago's largest and wealthiest hospitals, where, as an associate attending surgeon, he was held in high esteem by his white colleagues.
In 1913 Dr. Williams was inducted into the American College of Surgeons as a charter fellow, the first of his race. He had helped organize the National Medical Association in Atlanta, Ga., in 1895 to afford opportunities for improvement to black professionals. In 1900 he began annual visits to Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., serving without salary for over 25 years as visiting clinical professor of surgery. One writer commented: "He not only taught scientific medicine and surgery by precept and example but encouraged the founding of hospitals and training schools. His greatest pride was that directly or indirectly, he had a hand in the making of most of the outstanding Negro surgeons of the current generation."
Dr. Williams published nine creditable scientific papers. Wilberforce University and Howard University awarded him honorary degrees. He died on Aug. 4, 1931, at Idlewild, Mich. The Daniel Hale Williams Medical Reading Club in Washington, D.C., memorializes him.
Further Reading on Daniel Hale Williams
Full-length biographical studies of Williams are Helen Buckler, Daniel Hale Williams: Negro Surgeon (1968), and Lewis Fenderson, Daniel Hale Williams: Open Heart Doctor (1970). A long account of his career is in Herbert M. Morais, The History of the Negro in Medicine (1968). Good accounts of his life are in Langston Hughes, Famous American Negroes (1954); Jay Saunders Redding, The Lonesome Road (1958); and Louis Haber, Black Pioneers of Science and Invention (1970). A brief biography is in Wilhelmena S. Robinson, Historical Negro Biographies (1968). The general medical background is given in Robert G. Richardson, Surgery: Old and New Frontiers (1970).