Inspiring Spotlight In Honor of Black History Month

Image of Dr Daniel Hale Williams with vintage background

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“Anything is possible when it’s done in love and everything you can do should be done in love or it will fail.”
Dr. Daniel Hale Williams

In Honor of Black History Month, the Visiting Nurse Association (VNA) would like to spotlight a major African American healthcare worker who made such a huge contribution to medicine and equal rights, Daniel Hale Williams, M.D. (1856-1931). Dr. Williams performed the world’s first successful open-heart surgery in 1893 and also founded the first Black-owned hospital in America.

Dr. Williams was born in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, one of seven children. Dr. Williams’ childhood was peripatetic, with his mother moving the family around after his father died when he was young. The family ended up in Wisconsin, where Dr. Williams graduated from high school. He earned his medical degree from Chicago Medical College and opened a private practice in Chicago. He also taught at Chicago Medical College; between his impressive private practice and teaching, Dr. Williams made quite a name for himself, and in 1889, the governor of Illinois appointed him to the prestigious state’s board of health.

Dr. Williams was always committed to furthering the lives of African Americans and to that end, he worked hard to get the support he needed to open an interracial hospital and was successful; in 1891, the first interracial hospital was opened in America, Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses – a huge accomplishment less than two decades after the end of the Civil War.

Dr. Williams’ specialty was cardiology, and in 1893, he performed the first open-heart surgery in America – a major feat. A year later, Dr. Williams became Chief Surgeon of the Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., a hospital for African Americans where Dr. Williams was known for hiring multiracial staff. Dr. Williams continued to further his commitment to equality throughout his life, including co-founding the National Medical Association, a professional organization for Black medical practitioners. He also worked at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, TN, holding clinics that focused on the Black community, which inspired a number of other Black hospitals to open throughout the country. And in 1913, he became a charter member of the American College of Surgeons and its first Black fellow.   

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