Black History — Dr. Dan

This morning’s ‘good people’ post and related comments helped determine my path for this afternoon’s post.  Yes, there is a historic and crucial impeachment trial taking place this week, but I’m sure I will have ample opportunity to opine about that later.  For this afternoon, though, I want to highlight another ‘good people’ from the annals of Black History.  I wrote this post in February 2018, but since then I have many new readers, so to most of you, it will likely be new.  I hope you enjoy reading about a truly great humanitarian, Dr. Dan.

As I mentioned in a post last week, I want to take some time this month to highlight the accomplishments of some of our African-American brothers and sisters in honour of Black History Month.  We all know about Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, Bessie Coleman, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X and many others who are routinely highlighted during Black History Month, so I wanted to take an opportunity to seek out some who we may not have heard of before.  Today, I am focusing on one remarkable man …

Daniel Hale WilliamsDaniel Hale Williams III, was born in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania in 1856, five years before the start of the Civil War. His father, Daniel Hale Williams II, was a barber, having inherited a barbershop, but more importantly, he also worked with the Equal Rights League, a black civil rights organization.

When Daniel was only ten years old, his father died, and young Daniel was sent to live with family friends in Baltimore, Maryland.  Early on, Daniel became a shoemaker’s apprentice, but he didn’t really like making shoes, and ultimately decided to return to his family, who had since moved to Illinois.

Once in Illinois, Daniel thought to follow in his father’s footsteps and took up barbering, but he didn’t really like that either.  He wanted something more, and part of what he wanted was knowledge, so he sought to pursue an education.  As such, he became an apprentice to a surgeon, Dr. Henry Palmer, and at the same time attended Chicago Medical College.

Having finally found his calling, Williams set up a practice on Chicago’s South side after graduating from medical school, and he also returned to Chicago Medical College to teach anatomy.  He was known as “Doctor Dan” by his patients.

Due to the discrimination of the day, African-American citizens were still barred from being admitted to hospitals and black doctors were refused staff positions. Firmly believing this needed to change, in May 1891, Williams opened Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses, the nation’s first hospital with a nursing and intern program that had a racially integrated staff. The facility, where Williams worked as a surgeon, was publicly championed by famed abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass.

On July 9th, 1893, an oppressively hot day, James Cornish had worked a long day and was too wound up to go straight home. James thought to stop at his favourite bar to unwind a bit, but, as will happen when the heat gets to people, a fight soon broke out, and Mr. Cornish had the bad luck to become embroiled in the brawl, causing him to end up with a knife in his heart!

Turns out it was Cornish’s lucky day, for he was taken to Provident Hospital and placed in the care of none other than our Dr. Dan.   At first Cornish seemed to recover, but the next day he rapidly lost ground. Williams, despite having little medical equipment and no idea what was going on inside of Cornish’s chest, decided to be the first in the world to crack open a human chest and try to fix a human heart.

Williams found a tiny tear in the pericardium, the sac that surrounds the heart, and with just a few small stitches, was able to save the life of Mr. James Cornish!  This with no X-rays, no antibiotics, no reliable anesthesia. Cornish spent fifty-one days in the hospital, but he lived. A surgery that had been inconceivable at the beginning of July was, by the end of September, a recognized medical possibility.

The following year, 1894, Williams moved to Washington, D.C., where he was appointed the chief surgeon of the Freedmen’s Hospital, which provided care for formerly enslaved African Americans. The facility had fallen into neglect and had a high mortality rate. Williams worked diligently on revitalization, improving surgical procedures, increasing specialization, launching ambulance services and continuing to provide opportunities for black medical professionals, among other feats. In 1895, he co-founded the National Medical Association, a professional organization for black medical practitioners, as an alternative to the American Medical Association, which didn’t allow African-American membership.

Williams left Freedmen’s Hospital in 1898. He married Alice Johnson, and the newlyweds moved to Chicago, where Williams returned to his work at Provident. Soon after the turn of the century, he worked at Cook County Hospital and later at St. Luke’s, a large medical institution with ample resources.

Beginning in 1899, Williams also made annual trips to Nashville, Tennessee, where he was a voluntary visiting clinical professor at Meharry Medical College for more than two decades. He became a charter member of the American College of Surgeons in 1913.

Sadly, Daniel Hale Williams III experienced a debilitating stroke in 1926 and died five years later, on August 4, 1931, in Idlewild, Michigan.

I know of very few, if any, in the field of medicine whose contributions rival Daniel Williams’.  This is a man whose hand I wish I could shake, a man I wish I could know, a man I am honoured to highlight during Black History Month 2018.

I so enjoyed the research and writing of this post.  A special thanks to John Fioravanti for reminding me to step away from Trumpopia for a minute and focus on somebody who is truly deserving of my time and attention.

23 thoughts on “Black History — Dr. Dan

  1. Fortunately, at a very young age I was emphatically told by my mother (who’s of Eastern European heritage) about the exceptionally kind and caring nature of our Black family doctor. She never had anything disdainful to say about people of color; in fact she loves to watch/listen to the Middle Eastern and Indian subcontinental dancers and musicians on the multicultural channels.

    Conversely, if she’d told me the opposite about the doctor, I could’ve aged while blindly linking his color with an unjustly cynical view of him and all Black people.

    When angry, my (late) father occasionally expressed displeasure with Anglo immigrants, largely due to his own experiences with bigotry as a new Canadian citizen in the 1950s and ’60s.

    He, who also emigrated from Eastern Europe, didn’t resent non-white immigrants, for he realized they had things at least as bad. Plus he noticed—as I also now do—in them an admirable absence of a sense of entitlement.

    Therefore, essentially by chance, I reached adulthood unstricken by uncontrolled feelings of racial contempt seeking expression.

    Not as lucky, some people—who may now be in an armed authority capacity—were raised with a distrust or blind dislike of other racial groups.

    Regardless, the first step towards changing our irrationally biased thinking is our awareness of it and its origin.

    But until then, ugly sentiments need to be either suppressed or professionally dealt with, especially when considering the mentality is easily inflamed by anger.


    • Indeed so! We all know about Frederick Douglas, Bessie Coleman and many more, so I like to highlight the ones that are less well-known! Glad you liked it … stay tuned, for I hope to have more during the rest of February. Hugs

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      • Hello Jill. Thank you for this work you do. I wish our schools did as much but I am reading instead that they now in some states offer to let students opt out of actual history if it is about POC? I do not even understand that, other than the way to say they are deeply racist and do not want their children to know the truth. Hugs

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        • Thank YOU, Scottie, for boosting my morale! WHAT??? They let students “opt out” of history??? WHY??? That’s insane! History and literature may well be the most important things young people can learn! African-Americans have contributed every bit as much as pale folks to this nation! Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. I’m so sick of this country, sick of the human species, for the most part. Hugs

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          • Hello Jill. Good morning for you and all. It was in Utah and because of the heavy backlash they are reconsidering it ( I think that means cancelling it until the uproar dies down ) and will instead have the teacher whitewash the lesson anyway. Hugs

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            • And good evening to you, Scottie! Well, I’m glad they are reconsidering … that was the stupidest idea I’ve heard in a long time! And yes, of course, the teachers will teach the way they wish anyway. Sigh. Are you feeling better these days? Hugs

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              • Hello Jill. Yes and no. I forget if I told you, but I seen a new doctor, an endocrinologist. He thinks I am not getting enough O2 at night, that I am having sleep apnea. He described it as people putting a pillow over my face all night but not waking me. So first I have to do some more lab work this week and then if that doesn’t show otherwise I have to do a sleep study. Right now I am living on coffee which is tearing my stomach up. So yes I am able to be up more during the day, but still very tired and easily confused. I often just fall into a stupor until I go back to bed. Which is where I am off to now. Hugs and good night.

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                • Awwww Scottie … I am so so sorry! I hope they figure this all out soon! I have a friend who has been through much the same as you are going through, and I know it is no fun. Please take care of you … we all love you! Hugs, my dear friend!

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  2. Thank you for posting this, Jill. My maternal grandfather, an Ob-gyn out of Howard University med. school (who had to do his residency in KS City, apparently, because, I’m told that colored doctors could not do residency in DC back at the time, just after WWII…), was in practice partly out of the old Freedman’s Hospital, which at some point in my lifetime, I believe (since 1969) became DC General, which has been scandalously underfunded for many years, unless I’m really out of the loop these days.

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    • My pleasure, Shira! I was impressed by Dr. Dan the first time I heard of him. There are so many others … I will try to highlight a few more during the rest of this month!

      Your grandfather’s situation is not surprising, given the time. We seem not to have made much progress, but at least in this area, we have. We’ve got a long ways to go, as do many other countries, and I have begun to wonder of late if we will ever get to the point where people realize that skin colour is not the criteria upon which to judge a person. Sigh.

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      • Oh, we will, trust me. Looking back at the Abolitionist materials in the late antebellum decades, it’s fascinating that up north many were calling people like myself “white,” as even Sally Hemings herself was listed as white in her last census recorded (perhaps the census-taker did not know her), and seeing Quadroons identified as white by northerners in portraits alongside their darker skinned family members: one big fear that drove many northerners who read Adams’ notes after he visited Monticello was that as more people like myself were born, slaves from “mulatto” families, the chances grew higher of white people being kidnapped and sold (this was a severe problem for MU and darker skinned free people of color) as slaves. On the southern side of Mason-Dixon’s line, people like myself were reviled, yet sold for very high prices for the same reason: we could nearly pass (and sometimes did) for white, which represented both a threat and an allure.
        I say all of that to say that as people move about more, come into contact more, and marry outside of their traditional ‘background’ limitations more, the world will have to come to judge less by skin color, because more and more of us with darker skin will be related to more and more of everyone else. It will happen, if we don’t manage to wipe ourselves out first.

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        • Thank you, Shira, for giving me hope once again. Of late, especially since the murder of George Floyd and the aftermath, I had concluded that there was no hope humans would ever learn, would ever simply accept people as they are without trying to fit them into this box or that mold. But, you make some good points, and I hope with all my heart that you are right. And, that we don’t manage to extinct our own species first, of course.

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