Honoring Black Excellence: Surgeon Who Performed the World’s First Successful Open-Heart Surgery – Dr. Daniel Hale Williams

As we continue to celebrate Black History Month, I look to sources of inspiration as a fellow surgeon. In this piece, I would like to share another inspiring story of a surgeon and leader in the medical field. This story is about Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, an African American surgeon who performed the nation’s first successful open-heart surgery in the summer of 1893. This surgery was performed at the hospital that Dr. Williams opened himself, Provident Hospital – the first hospital of its kind that was operated by an interracial staff.

As a surgeon with today’s benefits of advanced surgical tools, I am deeply impressed with Dr. Williams’ story and the conditions under which he performed this groundbreaking surgery during his time. In 1893, there were many advancements transforming the medical field; but when Dr. Williams performed this milestone surgery, he did so without the assistance of modern surgery tools, x-rays, or antibiotics. His patient, James Cornish, was released from the hospital on his own two-feet 51 days after this life-saving surgery. You can read more about this impressive accomplishment in a write up from Jackson State University about the life and career of Dr. Williams.

Dr. Williams continued building a legacy in 1894 when he moved to Washington, D.C. As the Chief Surgeon of the Freedmen’s Hospital, he made it his priority to create a more equitable and inclusive medical field through his leadership and advocacy. A year after moving to the nation’s capital, Dr. Williams co-found the National Medical Association, another way to create opportunities for Black medical practitioners. In 1895, the American Medical Association did not allow African American membership. Dr. Williams moved to open doors for others, not keep them shut. Learn more about the history of African Americans and organized medicine.

In the first installment of this series, we remembered Dr. Brown, a graduate of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee and the first-ever African American female surgeon. Dr. Williams actually spent time as a visiting professor at the same Historically Black Medical College as Dr. Brown.

The inspiring story of Dr. Dorothy Lavinia Brown was an example of perseverance, determination, and grit, evolving her budding interest into a fulfilling career in the medical field. Dr. Daniel Hale Williams’ story is equally important, demonstrating advocacy for equal representation and removing racially motivated barriers to advance the field and as a result, deliver more equitable health care. Both stories inspire and challenge us all as humans, regardless of race.

The final installment of this Black History Month series will celebrate the leaders, both past and present, who are making groundbreaking changes in the medical field. Their work directly addresses the disparities faced by Black Americans in the health care system. It is through their advocacy that innovative approaches were developed to deliver better health care for all.

If you have not read Dr. Dorothy Lavinia Brown’s story, you will find that blog available here. Join us next week to continue our Black History Month celebration as we recognize three additional doctors who have truly made a difference.