Dr. Williams was a pioneering surgeon who performed the world’s first successful surgery on the human heart in Chicago in 1893.
Dr. Williams was born in Pennsylvania in 1856. Accompanied by one of his sisters, he left home as a teenager and eventually found his way to Janesville, Wisconsin. While working in a barbershop at age 17, he met Dr. Henry Palmer, a well-known surgeon and former Surgeon General of the United States.
Dr. Palmer granted Williams a two-year apprenticeship which ultimately prepared him to practice medicine during that period in history. However, Williams instead decided to attend the Chicago Medical School (which later became Northwestern Medical School) and from which he graduated in 1883. He opened his first practice in Chicago on South Michigan Avenue. He served on the surgical staff at several institutions, taught anatomy, was a physician to the City Railway Company and became the first Black person to be appointed to the Illinois State Board of Health.
Along with an interracial group of medical professionals, the now-Dr. Williams founded the Provident Hospital and Nursing Training School in 1891 as a place where Black aspiring nurses and physicians could receive training in an environment free of segregation. As such, Provident became the first Black-owned hospital in the United States.
On a July night in 1893, Dr. Williams performed the first heart surgery while saving the life of a stabbing victim. It was a surgery that had never been tried before. He opened the patient’s chest and sutured wounds to the pericardium and a blood vessel.
Dr. Williams was also instrumental in organizing what is now the National Medical Association, an organization for Black physicians. At the time, Black physicians were barred from membership in the American Medical Association.
After and long and very productive career, Dr. Williams died in 1931.
Contributed by Adrian Clark, Diversity and Inclusion Officer