The Man Behind the First Successful Open-Heart Surgery

Samuel Sullivan

Daniel Hale Williams was a Black physician in Chicago who overcame segregation. Frederick Douglass once said to Dr. Williams:

“You say you see what ought to be done. Well, hoping will do no good now or any time. There is only one way you can succeed and that is to override the obstacles in your way by the power that is within you. Do what you hope to do.”

(Dr. Daniel Hale Williams/U.S. National Library of Medicine on Wikimedia Commons)

According to Northwestern University, Frederick Douglass was a long-time friend of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams and offered him the above advice as Dr. Williams struggled to establish a career as a doctor in Chicago in the face of racial segregation. Douglass and Dr. Williams were Black Americans when discrimination was common, and opportunities were few and far between.

Dr. Williams performed the first successful open-heart surgery in 1893, less than 30 years after the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1865, abolishing slavery. Although performing the first open-heart surgery is an incredible accomplishment, the man behind the landmark surgery was incredibly successful throughout his life, even while dealing with obstacles such as segregation and inequality.

Founding Provident Hospital

Daniel Hale Williams was born in Pennsylvania in 1856. He graduated from Chicago Medical School in 1883. Chicago Medical School would later be known as Northwestern’s Fineberg School of Medicine.

According to Episode 119 of the Chicago History Podcast, Dr. Williams could not find work at a hospital due to segregation but worked in related fields. For example, he worked as an anatomical demonstrator for medical students at Northwestern. In a city with over one million people, Dr. Williams was one of only three Black physicians in Chicago.

Provident Hospital opened its doors in Chicago in 1891. It was the first Black-owned and operated hospital in America, and Dr. Williams was a key factor in the founding. According to The Provident Foundation, the hospital treated medical and surgical patients and housed a training school for nurses. Dr. Williams was appointed the hospital chief-of-staff.

The hospital staff was interracial, and the hospital admitted patients regardless of their race, unlike the other hospitals in Chicago.

Performing the first open-heart surgery

In 1893, many factors made open-heart surgery extremely dangerous. Not to mention, Dr. Williams did not have access to many things modern medicine takes for granted, such as X-rays, antibiotics, blood transfusions, and adequate anesthesia.

According to Ronald Kotulak of the Chicago Tribune, a 24-year-old Black man named James Cornish arrived at Provident Hospital with a knife wound in his chest. He sustained during a barroom brawl.

At some point in the night, Cornish’s condition deteriorated, and he began to bleed to death. Kotulak says Dr. Williams intervened and performed a desperate operation.

Using a scalpal, Dr. Williams cut a small incision into Cornish’s chest. After searching for the cause of Cornish’s bleeding, he found a severed artery. He then closed the artery with sutures but noticed a one-inch gash in Cornish’s pericardium, or the sac surrounding Cornish’s heart.

According to J. Donald Hill, M.D. in Classics in Thoracic Surgery, the heart-lung machine, known today as the cardiopulmonary bypass, was not used successfully until 1953. This device temporarily takes over the functions of the heart and lungs while the patient undergoes surgery. In other words, Dr. Williams performed open-heart surgery on a man whose heart was beating rapidly.

According to Kotulak, as Cornish’s heartbeat at 130 times per minute, Dr. Williams closed the wound on his pericardium with catgut. Cornish survived the surgery and was discharged from the hospital 51 days later. Cornish had fully recovered from his injuries and had no lasting effects from the surgery aside from his incision scar.

Dr. Williams was ahead of his time in his profession and is credited with completing the first open-heart surgery about 60 years before open-heart surgery became more common, according to Denton A. Cooley and O.H. Frazier in an article published for the American Heart Association.

(Provident Hospital by Zol87 on Wikimedia Commons)

Making an impact

Performing an open-heart surgery in that time period was an unbelievable accomplishment and a testament to Dr. Williams’ skill as a surgeon. According to Alisha J. Jefferson, M.D., and Tamra S. McKenzie, M.D. at the American College of Surgeons, Dr. Williams also was one of the first surgeons to repair a penetrating wound to the spleen in 1902 successfully.

Although Dr. William’s was a great surgeon, his contribution to the communities he served was perhaps more impressive. It is almost a guarantee that without Dr. Williams, James Cornish would have died the night he was stabbed. Not only because his injuries required an incredible surgeon, but also because he would not have been admitted to another hospital because he was Black. Without Provident Hospital, there would have been no hospital for the Black population of Chicago.

By creating Provident Hospital, he also provided Black nurses and doctors a place to work and study in Chicago. It did not just help his career, but others who faced the same segregation he did. He overcame all the obstacles of inequality that stood in his way, and he paved the way for others to succeed.


The Frederick Douglass quote that opened this article is memorialized on the Daniel Hale Williams Auditorium walls at Dr. Williams’ alma mater, The Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. Dr. Williams was the first African-American graduate and faculty member of the University. The auditorium was dedicated to him in 2004.

Dr. Williams was not afraid to take risks. When roadblocks stopped him from following his dreams, he broke through them. When he could not work as a doctor in Chicago, he founded a hospital. When a man came into his operating room with a knife wound and began to deteriorate, he operated to save the man’s life.

Dr. Williams lived up to the advice from his close friend Frederick Douglass and did not let the times get in his way. He was one of the most notable physicians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dr. Williams is an inspiring figure because he elevated his community and the people around him all in the face of segregation and inequality.

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