Daniel Hale Williams, Heart Surgery Pioneer

Daniel Hale Williams
Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, founder of Provident Hospital, pioneer in heart surgery.

 Bettmann / Getty Images

American physician Daniel Hale Williams (Jan. 18, 1856–Aug. 4, 1931), a pioneer in the field of medicine, was the first Black doctor to perform successful open heart surgery. Dr. Williams also founded Chicago's Provident Hospital and co-founded the National Medical Association.

Fast Facts: Dr. Daniel Hale Williams

  • Full Name: Daniel Hale Williams, III
  • Born: January 18, 1856, in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania
  • Died: August 4, 1931, in Idlewild, Michigan
  • Parents: Daniel Hale Williams, II and Sarah Price Williams
  • Spouse: Alice Johnson (m. 1898-1924)
  • Education: M.D. from Chicago Medical College (now Northwestern University Medical School)
  • Key Accomplishments: First Black physician to perform successful open-heart surgery, founder of Provident Hospital (the first Black-owned and operated interracial hospital in the U.S.), and co-founder of the National Medical Association.

Early Years

Daniel Hale Williams, III, was born on January 18, 1856 to Daniel Hale and Sarah Price Williams in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. His father was a barber and the family, including Daniel and his six siblings, moved to Annapolis, Maryland, when Daniel was a young boy. Shortly after the move, his father died from tuberculosis and his mother moved the family to Baltimore, Maryland. Daniel became a shoemaker's apprentice for a while and later moved to Wisconsin, where he became a barber. After graduating from high school, Daniel grew interested in medicine and served as an apprentice to a well known local surgeon, Dr. Henry Palmer. This apprenticeship lasted two years, and then Daniel was accepted to the Chicago Medical College, affiliated with Northwestern University. He graduated in 1883 with an M.D. degree.

Career and Accomplishments

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams began practicing medicine and surgery at Chicago's South Side Dispensary. He was also the first Black anatomy instructor at Chicago Medical College, where he taught notable future physicians such as Mayo Clinic's co-founder Charles Mayo. By 1889, other notable appointments for Dr. Williams included the City Railway Company, the Protestant Orphan Asylum, and the Illinois State Board of Health. These were very unique accomplishments for the time, considering that there were very few Black doctors at this point in Black American history.

Dr. Williams gained a reputation as a highly-skilled surgeon whose practice included treatment for all patients, regardless of race. This was life-saving for Black Americans at the time because they were not allowed admittance to hospitals. Black doctors were not allowed on staff in hospitals either. In 1890, a friend of Dr. Williams asked him for help as his sister was being denied entrance into nursing school because she was Black. In 1891, Dr. Williams founded the Provident Hospital and Nursing Training School. This was the first Black-owned and operated interracial hospital in the U.S. and served as a training ground for nurses and Black doctors.

First Open Heart Surgery

In 1893, Dr. Williams gained notoriety for successfully treating a man, James Cornish, with stab wounds to the heart. Although physicians at the time were aware of the revolutionary works of Louis Pastuer and Joseph Lister in relation to germs and medical surgery, open heart surgery was generally avoided due to the high risk of infection and subsequent death. Williams had no access to X-rays, antibiotics, anesthetics, blood transfusions, or modern equipment. Employing Lister's antiseptic technique, he performed the surgery suturing the pericardium (protective lining) of the heart. This would be the first successful heart surgery performed by an Black doctor and second by an American doctor. In 1891, Henry C. Dalton had surgically repaired a pericardial wound of the heart on a patient in St. Louis.

Later Years

In 1894, Dr. Williams obtained the position of surgeon-in-chief at Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C. This hospital served the needs of the poor and formerly enslaved people after the Civil War. In four years, Williams transformed the hospital, making dramatic improvements in the admission of surgical cases and drastically reducing the hospital's mortality rate.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams succeeded in the face of discrimination his entire life. In 1895, he co-founded the National Medical Association in response to the American Medical Association's denial of membership to Black people. The National Medical Association became the only national professional organization available for Black physicians.

In 1898, Williams resigned from Freedmen's Hospital and married Alice Johnson, daughter of sculptor Moses Jacob Ezekiel. The newlyweds returned to Chicago, where Williams became chief of surgery at Provident Hospital.

Death and Legacy

After resigning from his position at Provident Hospital in 1912, Williams was appointed staff surgeon at St. Luke's Hospital in Chicago. Among his many honors, he was named the American College of Surgeons first Black fellow. He remained at St. Luke's Hospital until suffering a stroke in 1926. Upon his retirement, Williams spent his remaining days in Idlewild, Michigan, where he died on August 4, 1931.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams would leave a legacy of greatness in the face of discrimination. He demonstrated that Black people are no less intelligent or valuable than any other Americans. He saved many lives by establishing Provident Hospital and provided proficient medical care, and he also helped train a new generation of Black physicians and nurses.


  • "Daniel Hale Willaims : Alumni Exhibit." Walter Dill Scott, University Archives, Northwestern University Library, Northwestern University Archives (NUL), exhibits.library.northwestern.edu/archives/exhibits/alumni/williams.html.
  • "Daniel Hale Williams." Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 19 Jan. 2018, www.biography.com/people/daniel-hale-williams-9532269.
  • "History - Dr. Daniel Hale Williams." The Provident Foundation, www.providentfoundation.org/index.php/history/history-dr-daniel-hale-williams.
  • "Nation's Second Open-Heart Surgery Performed In Chicago 119 Years Ago." The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 10 July 2017, www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/09/daniel-hale-williams-perf_n_1659949.html. 
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Bailey, Regina. "Daniel Hale Williams, Heart Surgery Pioneer." ThoughtCo, Oct. 30, 2020, thoughtco.com/daniel-hale-williams-4582933. Bailey, Regina. (2020, October 30). Daniel Hale Williams, Heart Surgery Pioneer. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/daniel-hale-williams-4582933 Bailey, Regina. "Daniel Hale Williams, Heart Surgery Pioneer." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/daniel-hale-williams-4582933 (accessed June 10, 2023).