Celebrating Black History: The First Successful Open Heart Surgery

A medical pioneer for future African American doctors and nurses and a trailblazer in the surgical field. Dr. Daniel Hale Williams was the first physician to perform open-heart surgery in the United States and founded the first black hospital.

February marks the 45th annual celebration of Black History Month, a month dedicated to honoring and spotlighting the significant works, achievements, and contributions that African Americans have made to society and the world. From science to medicine, technology, art, engineering, literature, history, politics, and inventions, African American innovators transformed our world for the better.   

To celebrate, each week throughout Black History Month, Trusted Medical will spotlight an African American medical pioneer whose groundbreaking contributions changed the course of medicine and paved the way for future generations. We begin with a man who performed the first successful open-heart surgery, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams. Keep reading to learn more about Dr. Daniel Hale Williams and his groundbreaking role in the field of medicine.

Born in 1856 in Pennsylvania, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams began his career as a shoemaker’s apprentice. He then took up barbering, following in his father’s footsteps for a short time. Ultimately, Williams decided he wanted to pursue his education and started an apprenticeship under Dr. Henry Palmer, a highly accomplished surgeon. He went on to complete further training at Chicago Medical College.

Graduating with his M.D. in 1883, Dr. Williams became a surgeon in the Chicago area at a time when there were only three other Black physicians in Chicago. As a practicing surgeon during the segregation era, he was prohibited from being admitted and working at hospitals. In response, Dr. Williams founded the Provident Hospital and Training School, the first Black-owned hospital in the United States and the first medical facility with an interracial staff.

In the summer of 1893, Dr. Williams became the first surgeon to perform open-heart surgery on a human. The surgery was performed without the use of X-rays, antibiotics, surgical prep-work, or the tools of modern surgery. The patient survived and was discharged just 51 days later, making it the first successful open-heart surgery on a human. The operation earned Williams recognition as a brilliant surgeon and pioneer in the field of medicine during a time when technological discoveries were revolutionizing the practice of medicine.

The following year, Dr. Williams moved to Washington D.C., where he continued to devote his entire life and career to medicine and fight for equality in healthcare. In 1895, he co-founded the National Medical Association, a professional organization for Black medical practitioners. To this day, Dr. Williams’ impact continues through his organization, as it stands as the oldest and largest national organization representing African American physicians and their patients. The association began as an alternative to the all-white American Medical Association that did not extend membership to Black doctors at the time.

For the remainder of his career, Dr. Williams continued to work as an accomplished surgeon and continued to change the medical field with his discoveries and new techniques, working at Cook County Hospital, St. Luke’s, and Meharry Medical College respectively. He would receive many honors including being named a Fellow in the American College of Surgeons in 1913 and awarded an honorary degree from Howard University School of Medicine.

At the time of his death, Dr. Williams left several donations to the many organizations that he supported including the NAACP, Meharry Medical College, Howard University, among many other institutions that were essential in providing expanded medical opportunities for African American students.

To read more about Dr. Williams and how his work still impacts our society, visit the Provident Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving Dr. Williams’ Provident Hospital and Training School legacy.