Anyone who has lived or spent a considerable amount of time in Chicago has memorized the typical responses they get when mentioning this to a stranger who isn’t from the area. “Oh wow, it must be freezing in the winter!” “Aren’t you scared to live there with all of the violence?” “Oh the Windy City haha!” “I went there once and saw the Bean and the Sears Tower”. These seem to be the only topics that non-Chicagoans can associate with the amazing city that surrounds our university. The good news is that we have the power to share more information with these people. We have the power to change this narrative, even if the conversation is short and with a stranger. There are countless remarkable things about Chicago that even locals don’t know, and that someone from the area could use to bring fresh topics to the table. For example, the first open heart surgery was done by a black man in Chicago in 1893. This is the first story in a TechNews series, aiming to bring the narrative of Chicago to topics besides the Bean, the Sears Tower, the cold weather, the politics, and the violence.
Daniel Hale Williams was born in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania and was one of seven children. After his father’s death, the family moved many times. At one point, Williams made a living as a shoemaker in Maryland. He then moved to Wisconsin, where he operated his own barber shop until he became inspired by a local physician and decided to pursue his education further. At the young age of 20, he apprenticed under a former surgeon general for Wisconsin, Dr. Henry Palmer. He did this for two years before going on to study medicine at Chicago Medical College (now known as Northwestern University Medical School) in Chicago, where he received his M.D. eight years before opening his own hospital and training school. In the time between, Williams worked in a private practice on the south side of the city, became a professor at Chicago Medical College, and performed as surgeon to the City Railway Company. In 1891, Williams opened the Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses, the nation's first integrated hospital and nursing school. He founded the institution in response to a young black woman named Emma Reynolds’ struggle to receive a nursing education due to her race.
Just two years later, on a summer night in Chicago, a young man named James Cornish was rushed to the training hospital after being stabbed. When Williams began to inspect Cornish, he realized the wound was much deeper than originally thought. He reacted quickly and decided to use the situation as a learning opportunity. He asked six doctors, four of which were white and two of which were black, to watch his remarkable operation. He cut the cartilage on the rib where the wound had occurred to create an opening to the heart. Williams then repaired a torn internal mammary artery and a laceration near the right coronary artery. The patient survived and was able to leave the hospital 51 days after the operation. The first successful pericardial sac repair in the United States had been completed.
Williams went on to receive the honor of being chief surgeon of Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C. In this position, he aimed to reduce mortality rates within the hospital setting. In 1895, he was instrumental in the organization of the National Medical Association, which is made up of black medical professionals. At the time, these professionals were not allowed into the American Medical Association. Williams also came back to Chicago to work as a surgeon. In 1913, he became the first African American to be inducted into the American College of Surgeons. After a lifetime of advocating for African-Americans in the medical field and accomplishing astonishing work, Williams died of a stroke in 1931 at the age of 75. Today, his legacy lives on through multiple institutions, including Provident Hospital, which still provides medical services of many kinds to Chicago citizens.