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Black History Month


Doctor did first open heart surgery

James Cornish was dying. He had been carried into the emergency ward at Provident Hospital on Chicago's South Side, bleeding from a knife wound in his chest.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams called for six of his fellow black physicians to help him get the dying man into an operating room. Carefully making an incision in his patient's chest, Williams exposed the man's still-beating heart and his near-fatal wound.

Williams and his surgeons sewed up the ragged gash located to the right of the heart, and, saying a prayer, sutured the chest incision, ending the world's first open heart surgery. The year was 1893.

The patient, scarred but healed, walked out of Provident Hospital one month later.

el1 Just two years before, Williams had founded Provident Hospital and its Training School for Nurses to provide medical education and a place to practice medicine for black nurses and doctors.

After performing his historic open heart surgery, Williams was appointed surgeon-in-chief of Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C., by President Grover Cleveland. He reorganized the hospital with his revolutionary idea of creating separate medical departments to treat specific ailments: surgical, gynecological, obstetrical, dermatological, urinary and throat and chest. At Freedmen's, Williams also opened another training school for black nursing students.

Williams accomplished all of this after experiencing a difficult childhood. Born in Hollidaysburg, Pa., he was just 11 years old when his father died. Shortly afterward, his mother sent him to apprentice with a cobbler, then abandoned him.

He supported himself later as a roustabout, or transient laborer, on a Great Lakes steamer ship, then as a barber. He was managing a barber shop when he apprenticed himself to Wisconsin's surgeon general, Dr. Henry Palmer, who became Williams' mentor as he earned his medical degree.

-- By Emily Bell

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