First Open-Heart Surgery – Guess Who Did It?

I remember all the news articles and the publicity given in 1982 when the first artificial heart was implanted in a patient in South Africa. The doctors behind this were portrayed as great men of science – as they should have been.

However until I began doing research on black history I never knew that the world’s first successful heart surgery was performed by a black doctor in 1893.

Born in 1848 in Pennsylvania, Daniel Hale Williams started his working career as a shoemaker. Seeking more education, Williams finished secondary school in Wisconsin and became an apprentice to a former surgeon general for Wisconsin. He studied medicine at Chicago Medical College.

After completing his internship he began private practice in an integrated community on Chicago’s south side. Further accomplishements included teaching anatomy at Chicago Medical College and serving as surgeon to the City Railway Company. The governor of Illinois appointed him to the state’s board of health in 1889.

Even though Dr. Williams had achieved success and some acceptance in the white community, black citizens were still barred from being admitted to most hospitals and black doctors were refused staff positions. To combat this, Dr. Williams opened Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses in May 1891. It was the first hospital in the nation that had a racially integrated staff.

In 1893 James Cornish was stabbed in the chest. Rushed to Provident Hospital, Cornish quickly began to go into shock. Suspecting a deeper wound near the heart Dr. Williams opened the wound between two ribs, cut the rib cartilage and created a small trapdoor to the heart. Asking six doctors to observe what he did (four white, two black) Dr. Williams found a gash in the right coronary artery. Holding the edges of the wound with forceps, he sewed them together. Cornish not only survived the surgery, he lived for over 20 more years.

The next year he became chief surgeon of Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C There he made improvements reducing the hospital’s mortality rate. The American Medical Association barred black doctors so Dr. Williams help organized the National Medical Association for black professionals.

In 1894, Dr. Williams became chief surgeon of Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., the most prestigious medical post available to African Americans then. There, he made improvements that reduced the hospital’s mortality rate. In 1895, he helped to organize the National Medical Association for black professionals, who were barred from the American Medical Association. Williams returned to Chicago, and continued as a surgeon. In 1913, he became the first African American to be inducted into the American College of Surgeons.

Known in his practice as “Dr. Dan,” today the Howard University Hospital use his name “Dr. Dan” as the call given for their “code blue.”

(Thanks to Columbia Surgery, New York, New York for the information on Dr. Williams and the photo of him.)

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