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This Day in Histroy – August 4, 1931

Pioneer in surgery Dr. Daniel Hale Williams dies

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On this day in 1931, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams died.

A pioneer in surgery, Williams was one of the very first physicians in the country to perform open-heart surgery. He is also remembered for founding the first hospital with both African American and white staff.

Born in 1856 in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. His father was very active in the Equal Rights League during the Reconstruction era. When his father passed away, 10-year-old Daniel was sent to Baltimore, Maryland to live with family friends. He worked there as a shoemaker’s apprentice, but disliked Baltimore and decided to move to Illinois, where some members of his extended family lived.

Ultimately, he decided that he wanted to continue his education. He first worked as an apprentice with highly accomplished surgeon Dr. Henry Palmer. For further training, he attended Chicago Medical College.

At the time, African Americans were still not allowed to be admitted to hospitals. Black doctors were denied staff positions. In May of 1891, Williams opened the country’s first hospital (with a nursing and intern program) with a racially integrated staff.

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Williams, who was referred to as “Dr. Dan” by patients, developed groundbreaking sterilization procedures after learning of the findings of a study on germ transmission and prevention conducted by Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister.

After moving to Washington, D.C. in 1894, Williams later became chief surgeon of the Freedmen’s Hospital, which is known for caring for formally enslaved African Americans. At the Freedman’s Hospital, Williams worked hard to improve surgical procedures, launching ambulance services, revitalizing the hospital, and creating more positions for black medical professionals.

After the turn of the century, Williams worked at Cook County Hospital and then St. Luke’s Hospital. For over two decades, Williams made periodic trips to Nashville, Tennessee, where he worked at Meharry Medical College as a voluntary visiting clinical professor.

Daniel Hale Williams, Jr. died in 1931 due to complications of a stroke.

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