Sawyers, June Skinner. ""Daniel Hale Williams", in, Chicago Portraits, Biographies of 250 Famous Chicagoans, Chicago; Loyola University Press, 1991

pp. 266 -268

facsimile / transcription of a book excerpt

Daniel Hale



born: January 18, 1858

(other sources say January 18,1856)

Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania

died: August 4, 1931

Idlewild, Michigan

An eminent member of Chicago's African- American community in the 1890s, Daniel Hale Williams was the best known black physician in the country. Williams was also one of the founders of Provident Hospital in Chicago, the first interracial institution of its kind in the United States.

Photograph reprinted with permission from the Chicago Sun- Times.

Williams grew up in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Apprenticed to a shoemaker from the age of twelve, he held odd jobs until 1878 when he took up the study of medicine. He came to Chicago in 1880. Three years later he graduated from the Chicago Medical College (now a part of Northwestern University) and opened a practice at Michigan Avenue and 31st Street in a mixed black and white neighborhood on the South Side. The African- American population then numbered only ten thousand, according to Williams's biographer Helen Buckler. Williams treated both black and white patients.

At that time, black physicians were not permitted to work on the staffs of the city's hospitals so Williams cofounded a black hospital, Provident. Pleased with the interracial emphasis, such well- known and wealthy Chicagoans as Philip Danforth Armour, Marshall Field, and George Pullman contributed money to its construction. On May 4, 1891, Provident Hospital opened in a three- story, twelvebed building on South Dearborn Street between 27th and 29th Streets. Families from throughout the neighborhood brought supplies--sheets, linen, sugar, soap, even loaves of bread. In 1896 the hospital moved to a larger building--it had sixty- five beds--at 36th and Dearborn Streets.

Williams considered Provident Hospital as a model, claims historian Allan H. Spear, "not of a Negro community institution, but of a venture in interracial cooperation." The advisory board consisted of mostly white Chicagoans, but the board of trustees and the hospital staff were predominantly African- American. In addition, Provident established the first nursing school for black women in the United States.

The first successful suture of the human heart occurred at Provident in 1893. Although there were reports of a similar operation performed in St. Louis two years before and perhaps even earlier by another physician, Williams is credited with being the first surgeon to conduct such an operation. In July of that year, a laborer, James Cornish, was brought to the hospital with a severe knife wound in his chest. Using primitive equipment and without the benefit of x- rays, Williams courageously entered the chest cavity and delicately sewed the lining of the heart with fine catgut. The operation made headlines across the world.

A perfectionist, Williams insisted on the highest of standards. Doctors and nurses were chosen solely on the basis of ability and included such outstanding physicians as Frank Billings and Christian Fenger, both white men. Unfortunately, this selectivity sometimes meant excluding African- American physicians, which caused some resentment in the black community. As a light- skinned African- American, Williams was sensitive to charges that Provident discriminated against darker- skinned blacks. Of mixed African- American, American Indian, and European ancestry, the light- skinned, redhaired Williams could have passed for white "as some of his relatives and forebears had," notes biographer Helen Buckler, yet, even so, he chose not to. He was never fully accepted by his fellow African- Americans, and he never could explain to his critics' satisfaction why virtually all of the staff appointments and nursing students were light- skinned. Provident physician and Williams's chief rival at the hospital, George Cleveland Hall, called Williams a "snob" who "doesn't seem to know what race he wants to belong to." Faced with mounting racial tension, white staff members chose to leave so that by 1916 all the nurses and most of the physicians were black. Williams himself, weary of the situation, resigned in 1912.

From 1893 to 1898, Williams served as surgeon- in- chief of Freedman's Hospital in Washington, D.C. Here he established another school of nursing for African- Americans

In 1898 Williams returned to Provident Hospital and simultaneously served on the staff of Cook County Hospital from 1900 to 1906 and at St. Luke's Hospital from 1907 to 1931. In 1895 he founded the National Medical Association, an organization for African- American physicians. Williams was the only black charter member of the American College of Surgeons. From 1899 until his death, he taught surgery ten days out of the year at Meharry Medical College, a black institution, in Nashville, Tennessee.

Williams died at his summer retreat in Idlewild, Michigan, in August of 1931.

In 1929 Provident Hospital relocated to 51st Street and Vincennes Avenue. In 1974 the trustees of Provident announced that the hospital would become an outpost of Cook County Hospital. In September of 1990 the Cook County Board purchased the three hundred- bed hospital--shuttered since September 1987, soon after it filed for bankruptcy--for $1 from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. Provident Hospital is scheduled to reopen in the fall of 1992.

See also: Frank Billings

Further reading: Buckler, Helen. Doctor Dan: Pioneer in American Surgery (1954); Spear, Allan H. Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto, 1890 - 1920 (1967).