Daniel Hale Williams — Catholic Writer

Daniel Hale Williams — Catholic Writer


ChickenBones: A Journal

for  Literary & Artistic African-American  Themes


Home Image, Source: original negative

Williams made . . . a most skillful surgeon . . . performed the first successful

surgical closure of a wound of the heart and pericardium



Daniel Hale Williams

Surgeon (1858-1931)


Daniel Hale Williams was born January 18, 1958, in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, the son (the fifth of seven children) of Daniel and Sarah Ann Price Williams. He began his elementary education at Stanton School, Annapolis, Maryland, but upon the death of his father (a barber who died of tuberculosis). Unable to care for her family Sarah sent some of the children to live with relatives and moved farther west, living first in Rockford, Illinois. Daniel was apprenticed to a shoemaker in Baltimore but ran away and joined his mother in Rockford. Later Daniel moved  to Edgerton, Wisconsin where he joined his sister and opened his own barbershop. He then moved to Janesville, Wisconsin.  Here Daniel Williams graduated from the high school, and in 1878 from Hare’s Classical Academy.

He began the study of medicine that same year in the office of Dr. Henry Palmer, a leading surgeon of the locality, who took a great interest in him. And in 1880, he continued at the Chicago medical College, the medical department of Northwestern University, receiving his M.D. in 1883, and served as intern at mercy Hospital, Chicago. From 1884 to 1891 he was surgeon to the South Side Dispensary and then a clinical instructor in anatomy at Northwestern.

He was also, 1887 to 1891, a member of the Illinois State Board of Health. Realizing the vital necessity of  a training school for colored nurses, he founded in 1891 Provident Hospital, Chicago, a three-story building which held 12 beds and served members of the community as a whole.  It was the first school of this kind in the United States. Within its first year, Provident Hospital  treated 189 patients and 141 saw a complete recovery, 23 recovered significantly, three saw a change in their condition and only 22 died. Considering the financial and health conditions of the patient, and primitive conditions of most hospitals, Provident a brand new hospital, at that time, to see an 87% success rate was phenomenal.  Much can be attributed to Williams insistence on the highest standards concerning procedures and sanitary conditions.

Dr. Williams was on the staff of the hospital from 1891 to 1912 except for a period of five years in Washington, D.C., where he was called in 1893 by President Cleveland who appointed him surgeon-in-chief of Freedmen’s Hospital. He reorganized the hospital and established there also a training school for Negro nurses.

On July 9, 1893,  James Cornish, a young Black man, was injured in a bar fight, stabbed in the chest with a knife. Cornish lost a great deal of blood and by the time he reached Provident he had gone into shock. Williams was faced with the choice of opening the man’s chest and possibly operating internally when that was almost unheard of in that day, entrance into the chest or abdomen of a patient would almost surely bring with it resulting infection and therefore death. Williams made the decision to operate and opened the man’s chest. He was a most skillful surgeon, and thus performed the first successful surgical closure of a wound of the heart and pericardium. Three years later, the patient still being alive, he wrote an account of this operation for the Medical Record, New York.

Before leaving Washington he married Alice D. Johnson of that city, April 8, 1898.

Meharry Medical College, Nashville, Tennessee, offered him in 1899 the chair of Professor of Clinical Surgery, and he established the first surgical clinics at Meharry. From 1900 to 1906 he was on the surgical staff of Cook County Hospital, and in 1906 became an associate surgeon on the staff of St. Luke’s Hospital, a post he held until his death. During the first World War, he was medical examiner on the Illinois state board of appeals.

Dr. Williams was keenly aware of the problems facing the Negro in the United States. He exerted every effort to promote the advancement of his people and felt intensely the discrimination directed against them as a group, although because of his distinction in his profession, he himself was usually accorded the greatest respect. he made a continual plea for hospitals and training schools for Negroes in the South.

When the American College of Surgeons was organized in 1913, Dr. Williams was invited to be a charter member, a distinction accorded to no other colored doctor. He was a member of the American Medical Association and of his city and state medical societies, besides being one of the founders and the first vice-president of the National Medical Association, a society of Negro doctors organized in 1895 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Dr. Williams suffered much from illness in the last years of his life. He died August 4, 1931, at his summer home, Idlewild, Michigan. It was not generally known he had embraced the Catholic faith. His funeral was held at St. Anselm’s Roman Catholic Church, Chicago, and the burial was in Graceland Cemetery.


The need of hospitals and training schools for the colored people of the South. [Detroit, 1900] 6p. Reprint from National Hospital and Sanitarium Record, Detroit, 1920.

Ovarian cysts in colored women, with notes on the relative frequency of fibromata in both races. Chicago [1901] 12p. Reprint from Chicago Medical Reporter 1901.

Penetrating wounds of the chest, perforating the diaphragm, and involving the abdominal viscera. St. Louis, 1904. p. 676-686, 2 pl. Reprint from Annals of Surgery, St. Louis, 1904.

Production of tetany in albino rats through decreased atmospheric pressure. Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada 23: 143-150, may 1929. Section V, Biological Sciences.

A report of two cases of Cesarean section under positive indications, with terminations in recovery. New York, W. Wood and Co., 1901. 8p. Reprinted from American Journal of Obstetrics, New York, 1901.

Stab wound of the heart and pericardium: suture of the pericardium: recovery: patient alive three years afterward. New York, Publishers’ Printing Co., 1897. 8p Reprinted from Medical Record, New York, 1897.

An unusual case of molluscum fibrosum. Philadelphia, 1900. 4p. Reprinted from Philadelphia Medical Journal, 1900

Sources: Sister Mary Anthony Scally, R.S.M. Negro Catholic Writers (1900-1943): A Bio-Bibliography (1945) / Princeton

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9 January 2012




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