Daniel Hale Williams Biography (1858-1931)


Daniel Williams, a meticulous, knowledgeable surgeon and founder of the firstinterracial hospital in the United States, advanced further in medicine thanany other African-American doctor of his time. Among his many achievements,Williams is credited with having performed the first emergency open-heart surgery.

Williams was born the fifth of seven children of Daniel and Sarah Ann Price Williams on January 18, 1858 in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. At the age of eleven, he was left an orphan after his father, a prosperous barber, died of tuberculosis and his mother deserted him. First apprenticed to a cobbler, he rebelled against repetitive, menial labor and moved to Edgerton, Wisconsin, to live with his sister Sally. He boarded with a foster family and found work asa barber and guitarist in a string band so that he could attend Haire's Classical Academy in Janesville, from which he graduated in 1877.

Following the example of his older brother, he studied law for a time. Aftera year, intrigued by the work of the town doctor, he requested a position asdoctor's assistant. To increase his knowledge of medicine, he read journals and texts. After two years apprenticeship, working as a laborer on a lake steamer, and borrowing money from friends and family to pay his tuition, he completed a medical degree from Chicago Medical College in 1883. Because African-American doctors were denied privileges at white hospitals, he worked as a surgeon at the South Side Dispensary in a ghetto area until 1892.

Under primitive conditions--either in his office or in the patient's hom--Williams performed necessary surgery without an anesthesiologist or X-rays, either in his office or in the patient's home. To improve surgical standards andhis patients' chances for survival, he founded Provident Hospital, a twelve-bed facility which accepted patients of all races, augmenting his meager fundsby organizing donations of linen, beds, cleaning supplies, and kitchenware.Fundraisers, including abolitionist Frederick Douglass, provided the money for medical instruments and drugs.

Williams took a personal interest in his community hospital by working lengthy stints and ended his day by disinfecting floors and instruments. He evolvedhigh standards for employees, including his nurse's training program, whichaccepted only qualified applicants. By maintaining strict standards and because of his skills as a surgeon, he achieved a better mortality ratio than other hospitals. Because of his reputation, patients from surrounding states requested his services.

In 1893, under the supervision of six associates, Williams saved a stockyardlaborer suffering from a knife wound to the pericardium by administering onlylocal anesthesia, cleansing with a saline solution, and performing open-chest surgery, a dramatic departure from standard protocol. The success of the procedure rated headlines in the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean, although many people doubted that a African-American doctor could evolve such an innovation.

From this major breakthrough came offers of positions at other institutions.He chose to serve as chief surgeon of Washington's Freedmen's Hospital, revamping its surgical program with the same antiseptic controls and nurse's training he had instituted at Provident. To modernize Freemen's further, he staffed the hospital with qualified specialists and created departments for each specialty. So successful were his innovations that he held training sessions atHoward University.

After a shift in the political climate reduced Williams's effectiveness, he opted to return to Chicago. Having married teacher Alice Johnson Williams, hesettled in as staff associate of Mercy and St. Luke's hospitals, taking timeto serve as the first African-American member of the Illinois board of healthin 1889 and again in 1891 and as surgeon for the City Railway Company, a rare opportunity for a African-American man. He also helped organize the National Medical Association for Black Doctors and taught at Meharry Medical Collegeand Howard University.

Williams received an LL.D. degree from Wilberforce University in 1908 and wasnamed a fellow of the American College of Surgeons and a member of the Chicago Surgical Society. Always interested in the training of African-American medical professionals, he immersed himself in the work of the NAACP as well asin the creation of schools that gave African-Americans an opportunity to develop medical skills. He retired from medicine in 1920. After his wife's death,he attended a few private patients, gardened and swam in his spare time. Already a victim of diabetes, he suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1925 and died at his summer home in Idlewild, Michigan, on August 4, 1931.

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