I have been reading a book lately from Rob Dunn entitled, The Man Who Touched His Own Heart, and came across a fascinating story that I wanted to share with you all here. This is the story of Doctor Daniel Hale Williams, a confident and talented man that not only saved lives but fought against racial discrimination in the medical field.
Daniel Hale Williams (1856-1931) was born in Pennsylvania to African American-Scots-Irish-Shawnee parents and was the 5th of 7 children (Dunn 10). As a teenager he worked in a barbershop and became close with the owner. Seeing that Williams had the brains and determination, the owner of that shop played a significant role in helping him apprentice in medicine and eventually apply to a medical college (Dunn 10-11). In 1883 he had obtained his M.D. degree and set up his own practice in Chicago. Williams noticed that many medical schools and hospitals were turning prospective students, nurses and physicians away based on the color of their skin. In an attempt to alleviate this problem, Williams set it upon himself to found a hospital. In 1891 the lease was officially signed and the Provident Hospital and Training Association was officially opened (Dunn 12). In his hospital, Williams trained African American nurses and physicians and Providence became the first black-owned and inter-racially operated hospital in the United States (Bailey).
“Surgery of the heart has probably reached the limits set by nature, no new methods and no new discovery can overcome the natural difficulties that attend a wound of the heart.” -1896, Stephen Paget
Before 1893, the heart was deemed by the medical community as being untouchable. Surgeons believed that wounds of the heart led to an unpreventable demise, just like opening the chest did. Therefore, patients with heart damage were left to their own devices, praying that their bodies would heal themselves without the need for medical intervention that wouldn’t come. On July 9, 1893 a man named James Cornish decided to go to a bar after a long day at work (Dunn 12). While there, a bar fight broke out and James found himself in the middle of the skirmish. Blinded by anger and alcohol, another patron ended up stabbing James in the chest with a knife before fleeing the scene (Dunn 12). James was rushed to Providence hospital where he was examined by Williams. In a time before the invention of the x-ray, doctors relied solely on what they could see and feel when making a diagnosis. James was conscious and had a strong pulse, leaving Williams to conclude that the knife had not reached his heart. A few hours after being bandaged up, Jame’s condition became deteriorating and his pulse was fading fast (Dunn 13). Williams decided that the only way to save his patient’s life was to perform emergency heart surgery, something unheard of at the time. James was lucky to have a doctor who was not afraid to go against convention and who’s self-confidence was like no other. On July 10, 1893 the operation began and doctor Williams discovered that the knife had penetrated the pericardium (the sac over the heart). He used catgut to suture the wound shut and waited to see if James would live. The surgery seemed like a success at first, but on August 2, Jame’s health suddenly declined (Dunn 22). A second surgery ensued where the original sutures were removed, the sac drained, and the wound closed once more (Dunn 22). On August 30, 1893 James Cornish walked out the hospital and proceeded to live for a few decades after being stabbed (Dunn 22-23). Daniel Hale Williams was the first African American physician to perform a successful heart operation on the pericardium. Not only did Daniel Williams manage to train a new generation of African Americans in the medical field, but he also proved to many surgeons that the heart was no longer off limits to the surgeons who had the talent and bravery to move forward. Today, victims of stab wounds to the chest have, on average, an 80% chance of survival if they are rushed to the hospital and operated on immediately (Dunn 17).
If that doesn’t make you grateful for modern medicine then I don’t know what will!
Until Next Time
For more stories of the heart, check out Rob Dunn’s, The Man Who Touched His Own Heart!
- Bailey. Regina. “Daniel Hale Williams, Heart Surgery Pioneer.” ThoughtCo. February 1, 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/daniel-hale-williams-4582933.
- Coulson, Alan S. “War and the First Century of Heart Surgery. ” Relevance: The Quarterly Journal of the Great War Society. 1997. http://www.worldwar1.com/tgws/rel009.htm
- “Daniel Hale Williams and the First Successful Heart Surgery.” Columbia University Irving Medical Center. https://columbiasurgery.org/news/daniel-hale-williams-and-first-successful-heart-surgery.
- Dunn, Rob. The Man Who Touched His Own Heart. Little, Brown and Company: New York, 2015.