Dr. Daniel Hale Williams (1856-1931) the founder of Provident Hospital was born in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. His father was a barber who was deeply religious and imparted a sense of pride in his eight children. When his father died of tuberculosis, Daniel was nine years old. His mother, Sarah Price Williams moved the family to Baltimore to live with relatives. Daniel was apprenticed to a shoemaker in Baltimore for three years. By age 17, he had also studied and become a successful barber and lived with the Anderson family in Janesville, Wisconsin where he worked in their barber-shop. He attended high school and later an academy where he graduated at the age of twenty-one.
He began his studies of medicine as an apprentice under Dr. Henry Palmer, a prominent surgeon. Dr. Palmer had three apprentices and all were accepted in 1890 into a three-year program at the Chicago Medical School, which was affiliated with Northwestern University. It was considered one of the best medical schools. Daniel graduated with an M.D. degree in 1883.
Dr. Williams’ began practice in Chicago at a time when there were only three other black physicians in Chicago. He secured an appointment at the South Side Dispensary, where he could practice medicine and surgery. He had appointments with the City Railway Company and the Protestant Orphan Asylum. He also maintained his affiliation with Northwestern University Medical School for four years while serving as an anatomy instructor.
Considered a thoughtful and skilled surgeon, Dr. Williams’ practice grew as he treated both black and white patients. But he was acutely aware of the limited opportunities for black physicians. In 1889, he was appointed to the Illinois State Board of Health (now known as the Illinois Department of Public Health), and worked with medical standards and hospital rules. He was aware of the prejudice against black patients in hospitals and the inferior treatment that was often dispensed. In 1890, Reverend Louis Reynolds, whose sister Emma was refused admission to nursing schools because she was black, approached Dr. Williams for help. This led to the founding of the Provident Hospital and Nursing Training School in 1891. The first years of the hospital were challenging, but successful. Dr. Williams insisted that his physicians remain abreast of emerging medical discoveries. He himself earned widespread renown as a surgeon in July 1893 when a young man named James Cornish entered the Hospital with chest stab wounds. Dr. Williams performed a new type of surgery to repair a tear in the heart lining, saving his life.
While proud of his accomplishments at Provident Hospital and those of the staff, Dr. Williams recognized that the hospital would need to grow to accommodate patients. In 1896, with substantial volunteer support, a new 65-bed hospital was opened.
In 1893, a friend, Judge Walter Q. Grisham, requested that he apply for the position of surgeon-in-chief at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. He served at Freedmen’s Hospital from 1894 until 1898. He established a model internship program for graduate physicians and helped guide other improvements leading to a decline in the hospital mortality rate and a large number of surgical cases. In December 1895, he helped organize the National Medical Association (NMA), which was, at the time, the only national organization open to black physicians. He was selected to serve as its first vice president.
In 1898, he married Alice Johnson, a school teacher that he had met in Washington D.C., and they returned to Chicago. He returned to Provident where he became chief of surgery and in 1902 performed another breakthrough operation, successfully suturing a patient’s spleen. He continued to develop his private practice in Chicago and to expand his involvement in community affairs.
In 1900, Dr. Williams was invited to become a visiting professor of surgery at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, one of two black medical schools in the country. He told the group at Meharry that there were now ten black hospitals in the country, where a decade before there had been none. Dr. Williams felt these hospitals had helped reduce the high mortality of blacks and that their role in training could make even larger contributions. His speeches were printed and influenced black leaders in other cities to consider starting hospitals. Throughout his career, he urged black physicians to become leaders in their communities.
Despite his national prominence, Dr. Williams faced differences with Provident’s administrators and other physicians, principally over hospital privilege issues. Yet, he continued working at Provident and maintained an active national travel schedule until 1912, when he resigned from Provident after being appointed attending staff surgeon at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chicago (now known as Rush-Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center). He served as an attending surgeon at St. Luke’s Hospital until 1926. He remained in active practice in Chicago until he suffered a stroke in 1926. He then moved to Idlewild, Michigan where he lived in retirement until his death in 1931.
Dr. Williams received many honors, including being named a Fellow in the American College of Surgeons (1913) and being awarded an honorary degree from Howard University School of Medicine. At his death, he left donations to many organizations he had supported including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Meharry Medical College, Howard University and other institutions. These gifts helped provide expanded medical education opportunities for black students.
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