On the morning of July 10th, 1893, Daniel Hale Williams had a difficult decision to make. James Cornish, a 24-year-old Black man who had been stabbed in a street brawl the night before, was struggling to breathe and deteriorating fast. Dr. Dan, as he was known to colleagues and patients, suspected that the knife had pierced the young man’s heart.
Luckily, Cornish had two things on his side. First, he was being treated at Chicago’s Provident Hospital and Training School, which Williams had founded two years earlier to serve Black patients. Second, he was in the hands of a gifted surgeon. Dr. Dan decided to do something that no other surgeon had attempted in an emergency setting: He cut open Cornish’s chest to repair the pierced pericardium with sheep’s intestine. The result was one of the world’s first successful open-heart surgeries. Cornish recovered and went on to live for decades more.
It was a remarkable achievement. In the era before antibiotics, blood transfusions, and effective anesthesia, most medical experts believed that heart surgery was almost invariably fatal. Williams proved them wrong. And he had performed the groundbreaking surgery in a small 12-bed hospital serving one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
“Dr. Williams Performs an Astonishing Feat,” a local newspaper proclaimed, calling the operation “most delicate as well as daring.”
Williams’ impact can’t be fully captured in monetary terms. He made a good living. At the height of his career he earned about $10,000 a year, roughly equivalent to $320,000 today. But he made less than his peers at white hospitals. And because he chose to treat poor Black people, he made less than he could have. As he once told a friend, “I cannot charge my people large fees.”
Born into a family of small business owners and preachers in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania in 1856, Williams had a mix of Black, Native American, and European ancestry. The fifth of seven children, he dropped out of school to become a shoemaker’s apprentice at 12, one year after his father had died of tuberculosis. He later worked on lake boats and in an orchestra before opening a barbershop in Edgerton, Wisconsin at the age of 17.
While working part-time in another barbershop, he trimmed the beard of Henry Palmer, a prominent surgeon who took the young man on as an apprentice. Williams went on to earn a medical degree from Chicago Medical College, which later became part of Northwestern University.
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