In July 1893, James Cornish was admitted to Provident Hospital in Chicago with a stab wound to the chest, resulting from a bar fight. He needed surgery, but medical professionals at the time thought operating on the heart was too dangerous.
That was about to change. Without antibiotics, adequate anesthesia or many of the tools used in modern heart surgery, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams cut a small hole in Cornish’s chest using a scalpel. He then repaired a severed artery and a tear in the sac surrounding the heart. Cornish lived another 20 years, and Williams became one of the first doctors in the world to perform open-heart surgery.
Directing wasn’t Williams’ only pioneering move. Just two years earlier, he had founded Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses, America’s first black-owned and operated hospital, treating both black and white patients. This gave black doctors and nurses the opportunity to practice medicine at a time when most medical and training institutions excluded them because of their race.
He was also the first black man appointed to the Illinois State Board of Health and a founding member of the National Medical Association, the nation’s oldest and largest organization representing black physicians. At a time when black people were denied admission to white hospitals or relegated to all-black wards with substandard care, the NMA made it a priority to eliminate health disparities and ensure access to professional medical care for all.
“He was obviously an inspiration to many doctors and a trailblazer,” said Dr. Ivor Benjamin, director of the Cardiovascular Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin and past president of the American Heart Association. “We truly stand on the shoulders of giants. He is a giant not only to his own people, but to the entire medical profession.”
For a black man in America, even having a medical degree in the 19th century was an accomplishment.
Dr. James McCune, who in 1837 became the first black man in the United States to earn a medical degree, studied medicine in Scotland because American medical schools did not admit blacks. Ten years later, Dr. David Jones Peck became the first black man to earn a medical degree from an American institution, graduating from Rush Medical College in Chicago. Howard University established its own medical school to train black doctors in 1868, but their opportunities to practice medicine remained rare.
Williams, a former shoemaker and barber apprentice, received his medical degree in 1883 from Chicago Medical School, affiliated with Northwestern University. He was one of only three practicing black doctors in Chicago at the time.
“I think at the end of the day, Dr. Williams’ success and recognition is not because of his race, but because of his accomplishments,” said Dr. Claudia Fegan, Chief Medical Officer of Cook County Health System. , which includes Provident Hospital. Although it closed for a time in the 1980s, Provident still fulfills the same mission that Williams had established when it was founded in the late 19th century, she said.
“Part of his legacy is that he wanted there to be a safe place where people could get quality care and where people could be trained to provide that care,” Fegan said. “Provident Hospital was opened to treat people of all races. It cared for people who had nowhere to go, and that’s part of Cook County’s mission. We’re committed to that mission, to provide the highest quality care without having to do a portfolio biopsy to see what you can afford.”
Williams’ legacy as a mentor and trainer of physicians has had a ripple effect, creating greater opportunities for aspiring black medical professionals and helping to improve the quality of care and reduce death rates for black patients.
“The people he trained went on to play pivotal roles in hospitals across the country,” Fegan said.
Williams mentored physicians during his tenure as chief surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, DC, where he established a model internship program for graduate physicians. In 1900 he became a visiting professor of surgery at one of the few black medical schools in the country, Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. He often spoke of the need for black doctors to become leaders in their communities and to create hospitals that would provide better care for black people.
Benjamin said the example set by Williams was very much like that of his own great-uncle, a Guyanese who got his medical degree in Scotland and performed the first blood transfusion in West Africa. He served as an inspiration to Benjamin and other members of his family, many of whom entered the medical profession.
“In my own life, I had no shortage of trailblazers,” said Benjamin, who came to the United States after finishing high school in Guyana and was mentored by other medical figures who shared the challenges of life. an immigrant heritage. “I understand the value and importance of having these key people who, despite the odds, have managed to not only succeed, but also be the first – and often the best – in the class.”
But as inspiring as people like Williams are, the number of black men and women in medicine remains disproportionately low, Benjamin said — something he hopes will change in the years to come.
“When I enrolled in Johns Hopkins University medical school in 1978, the number of African American men applying was 1,400,” he said. “Fast forward, by the time I became president of the AHA, that number hadn’t increased, even though more African American men were graduating from college. We need to be able to promote these heroes” so that more black men and women can see themselves as material for medical school and beyond.
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