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Black and White Image of Daniel Hale WilliamsDaniel Hale Williams (Jan. 18, 1856 – Aug. 4, 1931), an African-American surgeon and hospital founder, was born in Holliday, Pa., and went to school there and in Annapolis and Baltimore. After his father died, he moved to Janesville, Wisc., where, at the age of 17, he began his first careers as a barber and bass violinist. Later he worked in a law office but found the atmosphere too contentious. In 1878, with the sponsorship of a prominent physician in Janesville, he began his medical studies and received his M.D. from the Chicago Medical College in 1883. Following an internship, he became the surgeon at Chicago’s South Side Dispensary, where he treated African-American and white patients.

After learning of the difficulty that African-American women had getting into nursing school, Williams founded a hospital and a nursing school for women of color, securing financial assistance from African-American and white benefactors. In May of 1891, Provident Hospital opened with 12 beds and seven students in its first nursing class, from 175 applicants. With African-American and white physicians, staff and board members, it was the first black community hospital in the U.S., providing education for black doctors and nurses and care for all patients. Williams recruited his attending physicians and surgeons from Rush Medical College and his alma mater. Provident Hospital soon became overcrowded, and, with additional financial support, a new 65-bed building opened in 1896.

In 1894 Williams was appointed chief surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, DC, where he again instituted many changes, including the founding of a nursing school. Reorganizing the staff without regard to race, he developed an internship program and improved the hospital’s ties with the Howard University medical school. While at Freedmen’s, Williams was a founder of the National Medical Association, the only professional association then open to African-American physicians. In 1898 he resigned his position at Freedmen’s and to returned to Chicago, where he saw patients in five Chicago-area hospitals and was an attending surgeon at St. Luke’s Hospital, the largest and wealthiest in Chicago.

In 1913 Williams became the first African-American surgeon nominated as a charter member of the American College of Surgeons. In 1893 he performed the first successful operation on the pericardium. In 1902 he successfully sutured a heavily bleeding spleen, another first in the U.S. By 1901 Williams had operated on 357 ovarian cysts in African-American and white women, a condition previously believed to occur only in white women.

In 1900 Williams became a visiting clinical professor of surgery at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., and for the next 25 years provided much-needed training for African-American surgeons in the South.

In 1920 he and his wife moved to Idlewild, Mich., where he died on August 4, 1931.

Beatty, William K. (1999). “Williams, Daniel Hale.” In: John A. Garraty & Mark C. Carnes (Eds.), American national biography, Vol. 23, pp 444-446. New York: Oxford University Press.

Byers, Paula Kay & Bourgoin, Suzanne Michele (Eds.) (1997). Encyclopedia of World Biography. Vol. 16, 2nd ed., pp 302-303. Detroit: Gale, 2004. p182.

Photo: Daniel Hale Williams, c. 1900. Public Domain.