Called "the father of black surgery,"' according to the Huffington Post, Daniel Hale Williams (1856-1931) was an early Black surgeon who rarely has shown up in textbooks.
Williams was born in Pennsylvania in 1856 to a free Black family; five years before the start of the Civil War and seven years before slaves were freed in the Emancipation Proclamation. He was the fifth of seven children. His father, a talented barber, moved his family from Pennsylvania to Maryland, but died soon after from tuberculosis. Daniel Williams' mother could not care for all seven children on her own, so she made the ripping decision to send some of her children to live with relatives—including Daniel—while she trekked on to the Forest City, Rockford, Illinois to find work.
Daniel was stuck in Baltimore apprenticing a shoemaker. Disliking his life in Maryland, Williams ran away to join his mother here in Rockford.
After living in Rockford for years, Williams stayed in the stateline by moving to Edgerton, WI and then Janesville, WI where he stepped into his father's footsteps as a barber. His early talents with a knife proved tantamount to his later successes. In his mid-20's Williams became fascinated with medicine and decided to study it.
According to the Huffington Post, "Williams studied medicine at Northwestern University's Chicago-based medical school..., becoming one of the first black physicians in the city when he earned his M.D. in 1883." Northwestern was one of only a few universities that would accept a Black man into their program. Over the next few years, Williams honed his craft—usually at people's homes; sometimes on their kitchen tables, but rarely if ever at a hospital. When discussing segregation in the United States, few tend to remember that hospitals, too, were segregated. Many people of color were denied access to hospital-care or, under 'Separate but Equal', withstood inadequate and substandard care.
By 1891, Williams had established himself as a stalwart supporter of equal rights (particularly equal medical rights) by founding Provident Hospital and Training School Association, the first non-segregated hospital in the country.
In 1893 he performed his most notable feat of being the first surgeon in the nation to perform a successful open heart surgery. Also, according to blackinventor.com, "It should be noted however that while he is known as the first person to perform an open heart surgery, it is actually more noteworthy that he was the first surgeon to open the chest cavity successfully without the patient dying of infection."
Williams passed away on August 4, 1931 from a stroke at the age of 75. He left behind a legacy of compassion and determination, successfully pioneering heart surgery while combating overt racism and overcoming incredible odds.
Learn more of this extraordinary man from the video below (though it skips over the time he lived in Rockford, sadly):