Breaking barriers, saving lives

James Cornish probably did not know he was about to play a role in the making of history when he arrived at Chicago’s Provident Hospital on July 10, 1893. Chances are he wasn’t much interested in what history books would say, suffering as he was from a severe stab wound to his chest. His life would be saved that day by a trailblazing physician performing a first-of-its-kind surgery.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams had come to Illinois from Pennsylvania and had gotten his medical degree from the Chicago Medical College in 1883. He went to work as a surgeon on the city’s south side, at the South Side Dispensary and the Protestant Orphan Asylum.

But Williams saw that many other African American doctors and other medical professionals were denied the same kinds of opportunities which he had earned. One of these individuals, an aspiring nurse named Emma Reynolds, approached him with an appeal for help after she was excluded from nursing school. Dr. Williams resolved to do something about it, and in 1891 he helped in the founding of Provident Hospital and Training School, a 12-bed facility at 29th and Dearborn.

Not only would Provident serve all those in need, regardless of race, it would also open its ranks to African American doctors and offer training to up-and-coming African Americans seeking careers in health care. The hospital trained African American interns for work in the medical profession and opened the country’s first school for African American nurses. Emma Reynolds was a member of the first graduating class in 1893 and went on to become the first African American woman admitted to Northwestern University’s Medical College.

Dr. Williams was summoned that day in 1893 when James Cornish came through the door. Williams evaluated the situation and then made a controversial decision.

In an era when doctors shied away from treating heart wounds, Williams boldly made the opposite choice. The risks were enormous, especially because this was also a century before the kinds of anesthetics or antibiotics which are commonplace in operating rooms today. To thoroughly examine the wound, Williams first had to incise Cornish’s chest cavity and get a better look. Finding that the stab had reached all the way into the pericardium, the lining surrounding the heart, Dr. Williams continued his work, suturing up the wound before closing the chest cavity.

It was the world’s first open-heart surgery.

Cornish survived the surgery and made a full recovery, living into the 20th century. Dr. Williams became famous for seemingly doing the impossible and saving a life. A year later, President Grover Cleveland named Williams the Surgeon-in-Chief of Washington DC’s Freedmen’s Hospital, which had been established to treat formerly enslaved persons in the nation’s capital.

Thirty years after the end of the Civil War, the hospital had fallen on hard times, but Dr. Williams seemed to be just the man to lead its revival. He took to Washington his determination to mentor and support the career aspirations of other African American physicians. Soon his new hospital in Washington had opened its own school for African American nurses. He focused on hiring specialists to better treat specific conditions, insisted upon better surgical procedures and even put into place an early version of an EMS ambulance service. All these innovations brought the once moribund hospital back to life, and also brought about better outcomes for many of the hospital’s patients.

Provident Hospital, 1898. Photo from the Provident Foundation.
As an alternative to the American Medical Association, Dr. Williams founded the National Medical Association in 1895 for African American doctors and health care workers. In his spare time Dr. Williams was a professor of surgery at Washington’s Howard University Medical Department. He married Alice Johnson in 1898 and returned to Chicago the following year, where he again took up his work at Provident. He would later work at Cook County Hospital and at St. Luke’s in Chicago.

By the turn of the century, Dr. Williams was a visiting professor at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, a post he held for over 20 years. In that time he was a sought-after writer for medical journals, which published several of his papers. In 1913 he became a charter member of the American College of Surgeons, the first African American to do so.

Provident Hospital, meanwhile, continued its important work for almost a century, moving to a larger location on East 51stStreet in 1933. From its founding in 1891 until it closed in 1987, Provident was a crucial provider of health care on the south side of Chicago. It was such an important part of the region’s health care infrastructure that it didn’t stay closed for long. Just six years later, after the building was purchased and extensively renovated by the Cook County Board of Commissioners, Provident reopened as part of Loyola University’s Stritch School of Medicine, which continued Dr. Williams’ tradition of teaching at Provident by establishing the Cook County Loyola Provident Family Practice Residency Program.

Plans were in the works for a new Provident Hospital, a $240 million, eight-story facility, but they were postponed earlier this year. As with most other hospitals in Illinois and the nation this spring and summer, Provident has found itself on the front line of the COVID-19 response, even re-configuring its emergency room to better handle the influx of COVID patients.

Dr. Williams suffered a stroke in 1926 and died in Michigan in 1931. His legacy lived on in the many opportunities which he provided and doors which he opened to African Americans seeking to enter the medical profession.

Provident Nursing Class, 1900.
Photo from the Provident Foundation.
It also lived on in the operating rooms of American hospitals and others around the world. Today, the most common open-heart surgery in the United States is the coronary artery bypass graft, CABG, which is estimated to be performed as many as 400,000 times per year.

Following in the footsteps of Dr. Williams as an innovator, doctors and researchers have continued to work to find ways to make heart surgery safer, or even unnecessary with ongoing developments of better strategies and procedures for saving the lives of those in cardiac distress.