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How Dr. Daniel Hale Williams Became a Medical Pioneer on the South Side of Chicago

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams was a trailblazer in the medical field.

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Dr. Daniel Hale Williams and Provident Hospital in Chicago

Medical pioneer and entrepreneur Dr. Daniel Hale Williams (1856-1931) dedicated his life to equity in health care.

He made medical history when he became the first surgeon to successfully perform an open-heart surgery on a human. He also opened the Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses and was one of the founders of the National Medical Association. Many of his trailblazing accomplishments occurred in Chicago — a city once known as the mecca of Black businesses.

If you haven’t studied the life of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams since school, you might catch some gems that will open your eyes to his work and impact from a different lens. Below are 10 things you may not know about Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, or Dr. Dan as his patients called him.

1. Dr. Dan was born before the Emancipation Proclamation

Dr. Dan was born on Friday, January 18, 1856 in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania.

When Dr. Dan was 6 years old (September 22, 1862), President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. It declared that as of January 1, 1863, all enslaved people in the states currently engaged in rebellion against the Union “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

Dr. Dan lost his father to tuberculosis around the age of 10.

2. Dr. Dan was first Black graduate from Northwesten University School of Medicine

Williams graduated with an M.D. degree from the Chicago Medical College of Northwestern University (now the Feinberg School of Medicine) in 1883. Before he turned 30, he made history as the school’s first African-American graduate. After graduation, Dr. Williams opened a medical practice on Chicago’s South Side.

3. Dr. Dan was the first Black faculty member at Northwestern University

Williams was the first Black person to serve on the Northwestern medical faculty from 1885 to 1889. He taught several notable future physicians, including Charles Mayo, one of the founders of the Mayo Clinic.

4. Dr. Dan was appointed to the Illinois State Board of Health

In 1889, Dr. Williams was appointed to a two-year, unpaid term as a member of the Illinois State Board of Health (now known as the Illinois Department of Public Health), where he focused on hospital regulations and medical standards. He was the first African-American to serve on the board and was appointed by Joseph Fifer, who was the 19th Governor of Illinois.

5. Dr. Dan opened a hospital

At the age of 35, Dr. Dan opened Provident Hospital in Chicago. It was the first non-segregated medical facility in the country in 1891. The school trained black doctors and nurses during a time when students didn’t have access to many other facilities. Legendary playwright Lorraine Hansberry, author of ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ was born at Provident Hospital in May 19, 1930.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams saw a problem and worked to create a solution. After receiving a request for help from Emma Reynolds, a young black woman seeking acceptance to an all-white nursing school in Chicago, he decided it was time to create opportunities for future nurses and doctors. Provident Hospital provided an opportunity for Black people seeking jobs in the medical field. It also provided access to Black individuals seeking medical attention. During that time, you could count on one hand the number of Black physicians available to serve patients in Chicago.

5. Dr. Dan performed the first open-heart surgery in the country

In the summer of 1893, Dr. Dan made history by performing the nation’s first successful open-heart surgery at Provident Hospital. James Cornish, a 26 year old man, was admitted to the hospital after a severe stab wound in his chest. He was brought to Provident, and the surgery was a success.

6. Dr. Dan was appointed chief surgeon of the Freedman’s Hospital

In 1894, Williams was appointed the chief surgeon of the Freedmen’s Hospital. He moved to Washington, D.C. to work at the prestigous institution that catered to African Americans.

Image Credit: Twitter @CPNAS

7. Dr. Dan co-founded the National Medical Association

Since African-Americans were not allowed to become members of the American Medical Association, Williams and other Black medical professionals co-founded the National Medical Association in 1895. This professional organization serves the needs of Black medical practitioners.

8. Dr. Dan got married and moved back to Chicago

In 1898, Dr. Williams married Alice Johnson. The couple moved to Chicago, where Dr. Williams was able to continue his work at Provident. He also worked at Cook County Hospital and St. Luke’s.

9. Dr. Dan purchased a home in Bronzeville

Around 1905, Dr. Williams purchased a home at 445 E. 42nd Street (near King Drive) in Bronzeville. He lived there from 1905 – 1929.

Dr. Williams’ home became a National Historic Landmark in 1975.

10. Northwestern Auditorium Named for Dr. Daniel Hale Williams

In 2004, the Feinberg School of Medicine dedicated its 182-seat auditorium and atrium in honor of the late Daniel Hale Williams, M.D. He was recognized as the school’s first Black graduate and faculty member and one of the most noteworthy physicians of the 20th century.

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