Daniel Hale Williams was born in 1856 in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, the fifth of eight children. His father died when Daniel was just nine and his mother, unable to provide for all the children on her own, moved the family to Baltimore to live with relatives. An apprenticeship with a shoemaker was found for Daniel, and he worked there for three years; as a teen, he learned to cut hair and became a barber, living and working with a family who owned a barber shop in Wisconsin.
it was in Wisconsin that Daniel attended high school, graduating from Hare’s Classical Academy in 1877. While working as a barber, he met Dr. Henry Palmer, a leading surgeon, who became the Surgeon General of Wisconsin. Dr. Palmer took Daniel on as a medical apprentice–he had two other apprentices at the time–and helped them apply for admission to Chicago Medical School, affiliated with Northwestern University. All three were accepted and began their studies in 1880. Dr. Daniel Hale Williams graduated with his medical degree in 1883.
He began practicing surgery at the South Side Dispensary while, at the same time, holding a position at Northwest University, as an instructor of anatomy. He worked as a medical doctor for the City Railway Company and for the Protestant Orphan Asylum, and his practice and his reputation as a skilled surgeon began to grow. In 1883, he was one of only four African American doctors in the Chicago area, and yet was so well-respected within the medical community that six years later he was appointed to the Illinois Board of Health.
Dr. Williams observed that African American patients were routinely subject to second-class medical care, that opportunities for Black physicians were extremely limited, and that it was difficult for African Americans to gain admission to medical and nursing schools due to racism. When Dr. Williams met Emma Reynolds, who had been refused admission by every nursing school in the area, he launched a new venture: the first African-American-owned hospital in the United States. It started as a twelve-bed facility, named Provident Hospital. At Provident, Dr. Williams also opened the first nursing school for African Americans, where Emma Reynolds and six others made up the first graduating class. Emphasizing the need for the best possible medical care, Dr. Williams employed African American and White doctors at Provident Hospital.
In 1893, a young man named James Cornish was rushed to Provident Hospital with a stab wound to the chest. Doctors at this time did not have X-ray machines, and the doctors at Provident were unsure what to do. Cornish’s condition began to deteriorate; his pulse was getting weaker and he started to go into shock, all signs of internal bleeding. Dr. Williams made the decision to open up Cornish’s chest and see what could be done before he bled to death internally. The surgical team found a pierced blood vessel and a tear to the pericardium tissue around the heart. Dr. Williams sutured both of these injuries to stop the bleeding and James Cornish survived the operation; he lived another twenty-plus years. Newspaper headlines reported: “Sewed Up His Heart! Remarkable Surgical Operation on a Colored Man!”
Dr. Williams had performed the first successful open heart surgery ever.
Dr. Williams became surgeon-in-chief at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C, organizing the hospital into specialized departments: Medical, Surgical, Gynecological, Obstetrical, Dermatological, etc. He helped organize the National Medical Association, which at the time was the only medical organization open to African Americans.
In 1898 he married Alice Johnson,and moved back to Chicago where he acted as chief of surgery at Provident, now a much larger institution. He was often invited to speak to doctor’s associations around the country on the subject of health care for African Americans, encouraging African American leaders to open hospitals in other cities where African American people would receive first rate care. He received numerous honors and was the first Black physician named as a Fellow in the American College of Surgeons.
In 1926 he retired after suffering a stroke. Dr. Williams passed away in 1931, after a life of history-making accomplishments.