Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Hollidaysburg, Blair County
Daniel Hale Williams, the first African American heart surgeon, was born in Hollidaysburg.
Daniel Hale Williams was born January 18, 1856, in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. Williams worked at several different jobs during his youth, and remained restless before finally deciding to pursue medicine. Williams attended Chicago Medical in 1880 and became an M.D. in 1883. He tirelessly raised funds and awareness in order to establish the first interracial hospital, Provident Hospital, in 1891. In this hospital, Dr. Williams performed the operation for which he is most recognized: sewing a tear in the pericardium. Dr. Williams was respected for this and additional medical feats. He died in Idlewild, Michigan in 1931.
Daniel Hale Williams was born on January 18, 1856, in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, the fifth of seven children born to Daniel Williams, Jr. and Sarah Price Williams. Both parents were of African American, Welsh, German, and Native American heritage. Williams’ father prospered in Hollidaysburg, purchasing property in town as well as land rich in iron ore on Brush Mountain.
Shortly following the end of the Civil War, the Williams family visited Sarah Price Williams’ ancestral home in Annapolis. While there, Daniel Williams, Jr. died of “quick consumption,” a type of tuberculosis. Sarah Price Williams decided to stay with her mother (also widowed) for a short time.
Restless and uncertain of the future, Price Williams dispersed her seven children (the oldest of whom went up north on his own accord), taking Daniel Williams out of school and apprenticing him to a shoemaker in Baltimore. Williams, no doubt probably feeling unhappy and abandoned, packed up his clothes one day and headed west to pursue his mother and two of his sisters. After again being left behind by his mother, who this time took her oldest daughter and left Williams with a sister and cousins, Williams made his own way in Janesville, Wisconsin, working at whatever job he could get.
Daniel Hale Williams worked at several different occupations in his youth, including barbershop manager, assistant in parlor and bathing rooms, and even musician in a famous string band at the Meyer Opera House. All the while, Williams was pursuing the education that his father had deemed vital. However, after suffering several heavy chest colds, he was forced to leave high school without having graduated.
Williams continued working in the barbershop, which served as a kind of schooling during the day, while learned, passionate abolitionists argued their causes and concerns. Williams also found time to read between customers, and Orrin Guernsey, the insurance man, was sympathetic in bringing books from his own personal library for young Williams to read. However, Williams was dissatisfied with this way of life, for what he yearned for was to enter college. He arranged for tutoring at the Classical Academy, where tuition was within his financial reach. Williams graduated from the Academy in 1878, but was still indecisive about his future.
Not yet finding his true passion, Williams remained in Janesville to study law. However, within a few winter months, he found the prospect of “profiting from quarrels” to be miserable. It was around this time that, somehow, his interest was piqued for studying medicine. Daniel Hale Williams eventually became an apprentice of Dr. Henry Palmer, the town’s most prominent doctor and ex-mayor.
Despite Dr. Palmer’s initial hesitation to hire Williams as an apprentice, Williams found practicing medicine more and more desirable, and he finally convinced Dr. Palmer, beginning work in the busy office at the corner of Main and East Milwaukee Streets. Williams had finally discovered his dream vocation, and it changed him both mentally and physically: he felt no inner bewilderment or rebellion in the practice, and his health greatly improved.
In the late spring of 1880, along with many of his Janesville colleagues, it was time for Daniel Hale Williams to move on—specifically, to Chicago, Illinois. Managing to save enough money to buy some necessities and a new suit, he still lacked a large part of the one-hundred dollars or more that he would need for medical school. Harry Anderson, Williams’ father figure, was proud of his changes and suggested that Williams could borrow the money he needed from the bank, on his note. Williams attended Chicago Medical, a groundbreaking medical university courageously putting into practice ideals of better preliminary education, a graded curriculum, more and longer terms, and direct clinical instruction.
Williams constantly struggled to request loans from Anderson in order to pay for board and other expenses, and contracted a severe illness during his first year of studies. However, once his middle year ended, Williams decided to stay in Chicago to gain experience at Mercy Hospital, where he ordinarily would have had to wait until senior year to be on ward duty. After avoiding a financial pitfall during senior year, Williams attended Commencement Day in March, 1883, and became Daniel Hale Williams, M.D.
As doctors began adopting new techniques for sanitation and safety, they required nurses who would be able to understand and abide by their instructions. Dr. Williams was among those who welcomed the increasing number of trained nurses, but he went even further. Realizing the need for more hospitals, opportunities for black young women and doctors, as well as needs of the poor, Dr. Williams set out to establish the first interracial hospital. Spurring committees and rallies involving dozens of his friends, as well as many well-known names, Dr. Williams tirelessly sought support for this new establishment. The doors of Provident Hospital opened on May 4, 1891, only 18 months after Dr. Williams’ initial proposal.
It was in Provident Hospital that Dr. Daniel Hale Williams performed the surgery that he is most famous for: the sewing of a tear in the heart. In July of 1893, tempers flared in a saloon near Provident Hospital and a brawl ensued. A man, James Cornish, was stabbed in the chest and soon rushed to Provident Hospital. Dr. Williams examined the wound, and it seemed superficial, with no evidence of external or internal bleeding. However, Cornish began to show symptoms of shock; Dr. Williams concluded that a major vessel, even the heart, must be injured. Most physicians warned that in cases of the heart, it should be strictly left alone, in order to avoid any further complication—and, depending on whether he succeeded or failed, Dr. Williams’ reputation could be in jeopardy. However, taking note of Cornish’s worsening condition, he decided to go ahead with the surgery.
Having no modern devices or anesthesia to prevent air from entering the internal thoracic region, he set to work. Swiftly, he created a small “trapdoor” in Cornish’s chest, observing that the left internal mammary artery was damaged. Dr. Williams tied the injured vessel to prevent further hemorrhage. He discovered that the heart muscle itself needed no suture, but the pericardium (the sac surrounding the heart) needed suturing to prevent infection and future pain.
Irrigating the wound with a normal salt solution, he grasped the edges of the pulsating wound with long forceps; using a continuous suture, he managed to close the wound. James Cornish was operated on a second time to remove bloody serum that had developed, but overall the surgery was a success, and Cornish was able to leave the hospital after a 51-day stay; 20 years later, he was still alive and well. Dr. Williams’ medical feat was the subject of conversation for several weeks afterward, and the story was published in the Inter Ocean with the startling headline: “Sewed Up His Heart!” Thus, Dr. Williams’ became respected in Chicago’s top medical circles.
Near the end of the century, Williams readily accepted an invitation to be a visiting professor of clinical surgery at the Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, which was among the many schools and hospitals in which he operated and lectured. For over a decade, he spent five to ten days there without pay every year. Operating began in a crowded basement room, but by 1910 growing financial support resulted in a separate hospital building with forty beds.
In 1920, Dr. Williams built a summer home near Idlewild, Michigan; he and his wife, Alice, moved into the home, but Alice died from Parkinson’s disease within a few years. Dr. Williams’ will made provisions for many people and organizations: his sisters, his brother’s widow, even his sweetheart from younger years, Ida Williams Lord. The largest bequest ($8,000) went to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the will showed his immense loyalty and love, despite not having a huge fortune to bequest. On Tuesday, August 4, 1931, in his beloved Idlewild, Daniel Hale Williams died.
“Stab Wound of the Heart and Pericardium—Suture of the Pericardium—Recovery—Patient Alive Three Years Afterward,” Medical Record 51 (1897): 437-39.
“Penetrating Wounds of the Chest, Perforating the Diaphragm, and Involving the Abdominal Viscera; Case of Successful Spleen Suture for Traumatic Haemorrhage,” Annals of Surgery 40 (1904): 675-85.
“Ovarian Cysts in Colored Women, with Notes on the Relative Frequency of Fibromata in Both Races,” Chicago Medical Record 20 (1901): 47-57, with discussion by Dr. A. J. Ochsner summarized on pp. 100-101.
Buckler, Helen. Daniel Hale Williams: Negro Surgeon (2nd edition). New York: Pitman, 1968.
Sammons, Vivian O. “Williams, Daniel Hale.” Blacks in Science and Medicine. New York: Hemisphere Publishing, 1990.