In recognition of Black History Month, during the four weeks of February, we are sharing weekly spotlights of African American graduates from Northwestern’s medical and dental schools. These alumni made significant contributions to the field of medicine, forging the way for many generations to come.

Information provided by the Galter Health Sciences Library. “Library Notes,” 2014.


DHWilliams-portrait_150Daniel Hale Williams, 1883 MD, is recognized for many firsts in the history of Northwestern University and in the field of medicine in the 20th century, blazing a trail for future generations of African American clinicians and surgeons. He was the first African American student to receive an MD degree from Northwestern and subsequently, the first African American medical faculty member to be hired at Northwestern. Throughout the years, he taught several notable future physicians, including Charles Mayo. In addition to helping found Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses, the first inter-racial institution of its type in Chicago, he was one of the founders of the National Medical Association. He performed one of the first successful operations of the pericardium and was the first black surgeon to be named as a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons.

Dr. Williams began his studies at the medical school at Northwestern University in 1881, following an apprenticeship with Dr. Henry Palmer in Janesville, Wis. He was awarded an MD in 1883 by the Chicago Medical College, 13 years after Northwestern and the college became affiliated, and established a private practice in Chicago. (In 1891, the name of the school was changed to Northwestern University Medical School.) From 1885 to 1888, he was a demonstrator in anatomy at the South Side Dispensary (the free clinic of Northwestern) followed by an appointment as instructor. He was appointed to the Illinois State Board of Health in 1887 and at the same time became the attending physician at the Protestant Orphan Asylum in Chicago.

Williams founded Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses in Chicago, the first black-owned and -operated hospital in the country. He decided that the black community should establish its own interracial hospital and nursing school in 1891, when a young black woman named Emma Reynolds asked for help in getting admitted to an all-white nursing school. She was a graduate of the Training School for Nurses at Provident Hospital and went on to become the first black woman to be awarded an MD from Northwestern in 1895. In fact, Dr. Williams sponsored Miss Reynolds when she applied to the Northwestern University Women’s Medical School. Provident Hospital also provided internship training for young black physicians.

In July 1893, Williams performed one of the first successful operations of the pericardium; President Grover Cleveland appointed him surgeon-in-chief at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., that same year. In 1895 he helped found the National Medical Association before returning to Chicago in 1898 to be a surgeon at Provident Hospital. Beginning in 1900, he taught surgical clinics at Meharry Medical College, Nashville, Tenn., and was later appointed as professor of clinical surgery. In 1909 he joined the surgical staff at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, a position he held through 1926. Elected Fellow of the American College of Surgeons in 1913, he was the only black surgeon among the initiates until 1934. After completing his career on the surgical staff at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chicago, he retired to Idlewild, Mich., and died in 1931.

In 2004, Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine dedicated a new state-of-the-art, 182-seat auditorium and atrium in honor of the late Daniel Hale Williams, M.D., known throughout Chicago as “Dr. Dan.” The atrium includes a commemorative display and a bust of Williams, by Preston Jackson, renowned Illinois artist and professor of sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The atrium’s paneled wall carries a quote from Frederick Douglass — advice he offered to Williams, who was a longtime friend: “You say you see what ought to be done. Well, hoping will do no good now or any time. There is only one way you can succeed and that is to override the obstacles in your way by the power that is within you. Do what you hope to do.”

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