Childhood & Early Life
Daniel Hale Williams was born on January 18, 1856, in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, to Daniel Hale Williams Jr. and Sarah Price Williams. Daniel was the fifth child in the family and had six siblings.
His father worked as a barber. Both his parents were of mixed descent. His father was the son of a black man and a Scots–Irish woman. Daniel grew up in a lower-middle-class household. The Civil Rights Movement was just taking shape back then, and America was on its way to abolish slavery.
However, things were not too good for the black or mixed race population. They did not receive quality education or healthcare. When Daniel was 9 years old, the family moved to Annapolis, Maryland.
Daniel’s father died around the same time, which meant that the entire burden of raising the children fell on his mother’s shoulders. Failing to arrange good finances to take care of all her children, she decided to live with her relatives. Daniel was among the kids who were sent away. He was sent to a family friend’s home, where he apprenticed as a shoemaker. However, he soon ran away from that house and rejoined his mother, who had settled in Rockford, Illinois, by then.
Soon after, the family moved to Edgerton, Wisconsin, where he opened a barber shop along with one of his sisters. He later moved to Janesville and became fascinated by the work of a local surgeon. He decided to pursue medicine.
He began working as an apprentice to a local doctor named Henry Palmer and worked as his assistant for 2 years, learning the basics.
He enrolled at the ‘Chicago Medical College,’ currently known as the ‘Northwestern University Medical School,’ in 1880.
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Daniel graduated with an MD degree from the ‘Chicago Medical College’ in 1883 and opened his private clinic. His patients consisted of both black and white people from the area. Back then, Chicago had only three other black doctors.
The black population was not reaping the full benefits of the American medical advancements, and this was Daniel’s biggest motivation. Outside his profession, he was also involved with the ‘Equal Rights League,’ an organization fighting for black rights during the reconstruction era.
Since the beginning of his practice, Daniel was considered a thoughtful and highly skilled doctor. Black doctors were not allowed in the American government hospitals back then, and that led him to lay the foundation of the ‘Provident Hospital and Training School’ in May, 1891. He trained African–American young women when no other training centres allowed them to study nursing.
The hospital is currently known as the ‘Provident Hospital of Cook County’ in Chicago. It was the first hospital in the country with an internship and nursing program for black women. However, unlike other hospitals, ‘Provident Hospital’ did not discriminate among its staff and hired both white and black doctors and nurses in equal numbers. White patients were also welcome at the hospital.
The hospital gained nationwide fame when famous writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote articles on it and made it popular as the first interracial hospital in the country.
A patient named James Cornish was taken to the ‘Provident Hospital’ on July 9, 1893. He was badly wounded by a knife. On July 10, 1893, Daniel performed a surgery to repair the torn pericardium of the man. He had been stabbed directly through a costal cartilage.
The patient was suffering from continuous bleeding and chronic cough. All the symptoms indicated that he was going to be in a shock, which could have turned fatal very quickly. At that time, there were no cures such as penicillin or blood transfusion facilities available at the hospital. However, Daniel went ahead and performed the surgery.
A second procedure was undertaken to drain the excess fluid. Thus, the surgery was successfully completed. After 50 days, the patient was completely healed and discharged from the hospital.
The surgery had been performed quite a few times before, too, but this became the first successful pericardium surgery that was properly documented. Thus it became a significant breakthrough in medical science. The surgery was not reported until 1897, after which it received nationwide coverage.
His reputation had become widespread. In 1893, he was invited to take up the job of the surgeon-in-chief at the ‘Freedman’s Hospital’ in Washington, D.C. It was another hospital that treated mostly African–American patients. He worked there for 5 years, until 1898.
Daniel later served as a professor of clinical surgery at the ‘Meharry Medical College,’ located in Nashville, Tennessee. Simultaneously, he also worked as an attending surgeon at the ‘Cook County Hospital,’ located in Chicago.
Throughout his life, he worked hard to create an environment of tolerance in government hospitals and to make sure that African–Americans were treated as nicely as white people.
He co-founded the ‘National Medical Association’ in 1895. The association brought all African–American doctors on the same platform.
Later, in 1913, he became the only African–American doctor at the ‘American College of Surgeons.’ He was also a charter member there.
Family & Personal Life
Daniel married Alice Johnson in 1898. She was the daughter of a famous white sculptor named Moses Jacob Ezekiel and a maid of mixed race. Alice died in 1924.
Daniel lived as a famous surgeon, but he spent his later life in obscurity. He died of a stroke on August 4, 1931, in Idlewild, Michigan. He spent the last few years of his life in a black community.