So often when we reflect on African-American history, we tend to honor the men and women who strove to end slavery, racial discrimination, segregation in all forms and injustice.
Such names as Martin Luther King, W.E.B. Dubois, Frederick Douglas, Edgar Myers, James Chaney and Harriet Tubman frequently appear.
As important as these heroes were, there were many African-American pioneers in the medical profession, whose contributions saved and raised the quality of many lives.
The first successful open-heart surgery took place in 1893 at Provident hospital in Chicago — and was performed by Dr. Daniel Hale Williams (1856-1931).
Williams was born in Holidaysburg, Penn., the son of a barber. After his father died from tuberculosis when he was 10, he went to stay with family friends to learn shoemaking. He rejoined his family, but again became separated from them and went, with his sister, Sally, to Janesville, Wisc., to join a successful barber shop.
The owner of the business, Harry Anderson, encouraged him to read books and enroll in Hare’s Academy, where he finished his high school education.
During his stay in Janesville, he obtained a two-year internship with a Civil War surgeon, Dr. Henry Palmer. He subsequently studied at Chicago Medical College (Northwestern University School of Medicine).
Following his graduation in 1883 and internship, Williams set up a practice in Chicago. To make medical training available for more African-Americans, Dr. Williams and his supporters established Provident Hospital in 1891. This facility provided training for medical personnel and accepted patients of all races.
Provident also admitted the ill and/or injured who could not pay.
One of Dr. Williams’ students, Dr. William A. Warfield, became the surgeon-in-chief of the Freedman’s Bureau. His 1941 letter illustrated the high regard the medical community held for Dr. Williams.
It read: “It can be said that surgical development began with the arrival of Dr. Williams in all forms, especially abdominal. This is where I got my start and inspiration. I recall that Dr. Robert Rayburn, who was the first surgeon-in-chief of the hospital came into the operating room when Dr. Williams was performing an abdominal operation and remarked with much joy that the ‘time’ had at last, arrived when it was possible to penetrate the abdomen, without fear.”
The most famous medical feat involved not the abdomen but the heart.
On July 10, 1893, a 24-year-old black man, James Cornish arrived at the Provident E. R. with what normally would have been a fatal stab wound. The knife pierced the heart region, cutting the pericardium and thoracic or mammary artery.
Dr. Williams opened the thorax, stitched the lacerated pericardium, and repaired the nick in the artery.
Cornish lived for some 20 years after the surgery.
“Dr. Dan” (who married Alice Johnson in 1898) served in numerous infirmaries other than Provident, such as the Freedman’s Bureau Hospital in D.C. He also established the National Medical Association because the American Medical Association did not accept African American physicians.
Finally in 1913, Dr. Williams became the first black doctor to be accepted into the American College of Surgeons.
This physician came to represent hope for a future in which humanity, compassion, and courage displace the potential for evil within human existence.
He transcended the circumstances of what Paul Tillich called the Sitz im Leben — or setting in life.
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