African-American Pioneers in Science

Daniel Hale Williams (1856 - 1931)

Daniel Hale Williams Photo
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons



Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania


M.D. Chicago Medical College (Northwestern University)

  • Daniel Hale Williams
  • African-American pioneer in Medicine
  • First African-American cardiologist
  • Founded one of the first interracial hospitals (Provident Hospital) in United States
  • Performed the first known successful open-heart surgery in United States

Surgeon and cardiologist Daniel Hale Williams was born on January 18, 1856 in Hollidaysburg Pennsylvania. His father, Daniel Hale Williams senior, owned a barber shop and his mother Sarah was a homemaker. When Daniel was 10, his father died. After his father's death, over the next few years, he traveled to Maryland, Wisconsin and Illinois where he apprenticed first as a shoemaker and then as a barber. Not satisfied with either one of those professions, Williams became an apprentice to surgeon Dr. Henry Palmer. (Dr. Palmer had been one of his customers at barber shop that Williams worked in). After completing his apprenticeship, Williams applied to and was accepted at Northwestern University's Chicago Medical College (in Illinois) where he received his M.D. in 1883.

After earning his M.D. and completing his internship at Chicago's Mercy Hospital, Dr. Williams started private practice in Chicago and was an instructor at his alma mater. Within a few years time, by 1889, Dr. Williams was a member of the Illinois State Board of Health and had become the first African-American physician to work for Chicago's street railway system.

Due to discrimination at the time, African-Americans were denied care at hospitals and African-American doctors were denied hospital positions. To address this situation, in 1891, Dr. Williams founded Provident Hospital and Training School in the south side of Chicago. Provident provided positions for black physicians and training for black nurses. Provident was the first hospital in the United States to have an interracial staff.

In 1893, Dr. Williams performed what was recognized as the first known successful open-heart surgery. He was called on to treat a patient (James Cornish) suffering from a knife wound. Cornish had a punctured pericardium (the membrane that protects the heart) and heavy internal bleeding. Without the benefit of penicillin or blood transfusion, Dr Williams sucessfully treated and sutured the wound and Cornish recovered from the injury a few weeks later.

In 1895, Dr. Williams co-founded the National Medical Association (an association for African-American medical professionals). He also served as chief surgeon of Freedmen's hospital (Washington D.C), visting professor at Meharry Medical College (Nashville Tennessee) and became a charter member of the American College of Surgeons (1913).