I have a fascination with firsts, especially when it comes to historically underrepresented and disenfranchised populations. Those firsts, whether it be first African-american, first female, etc., to break a barrier that previously been been erected provides a sense of encouragement along with a degree of lament. And so it was when I learned more about the life of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams. Not only was he one of the first African-American physicians in the city of Chicago but also one of the first physicians to perform open heart surgery during the Reconstruction era.
His name came up in a Sunday School class in a series on engaging with others (especially Muslims) regarding the gospel. This particular class (the only one I’ve attended in the series), Imad was going over the thoughts and intentions of the heart and the way we process information. As a side note, he mentioned Dr. Williams’ accomplishment, noting how in the wisdom of God, a procedure that would sustain life came through the hands of an African-American, which demonstrates the wretchedness of racial prejudice. God uses whom he will to accomplish his purposes and does so through a variety of different ways and people.
This prompted me to do some research. I discovered that Daniel Hale Williams was born in January 1856 in Hollidaysburg, PA. His father, a barber by trade, died when Williams was 9 years old. He turned to barbering as a trade like his father but longed for a different pursuit. He ended up doing an apprenticeship with Dr. Henry Palmer, a highly accomplished surgeon. From there he went on to complete further training at Chicago Medical College and received his M.D. in 1883.
Dr. Williams was keenly aware of the barriers that existed for black people in this era, yet that didn’t stop him from blooming where he was planted. Being one of three African-American physicians in Chicago, he opened a private practice to serve Chicago’s black residents but also served white patients as well. Upon learning that the sister of a local pastor was denied admittance to a nursing school because she was black, Dr. Williams took steps to open Provident Hospital and Nursing Training School in 1891. This move gave African-Americans the opportunity to serve in the medical field where other hospitals would deny their admittance.
Taking this step, keeping apprised of the latest medical advances, and making the commitment to provide medical care to anyone in need, led to the opportunity to accomplish a first for open heart surgery.
As told in this Newsone report;
“On this day in 1893, a stabbing victim entered Provident with wounds to the chest and heart. Dr. Williams repaired the lining of the man’s heart, thus saving his life in the process. Although he was not the first to perform such surgery, Williams would effectively lay claim to having the first successful open-heart surgery after the man recovered nearly two months later.”
His accomplishments did not end there. Dr. Williams later served at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. as surgeon-in-chief where he established a model internship program for graduate physicians. Under his leadership, his guidance also led to improvements that contributed to a decline in the mortality rate. In 1895, he helped organize the National Medical Association, the only national organization at the time that was open to black physicians. After returning to Provident in 1902, he performed another breakthrough surgery to suture a patient’s spleen.
Dr. Williams would go on to rightfully receive many honors including an honorary degree from Howard University School of Medicine and being named a Fellow in the American College of Surgeons. He suffered a stroke in 1926 and passed away in 1931.
I often stand amazed regarding the perseverance of folks like Dr. Williams, who encountered all kinds of barriers and treated by the larger society as insignificant. Rather than allow such limitations to hamper any kind of personal and vocational progress, Dr. Williams demonstrated that putting ones hands to the plow can amass immense possibilities. This stands in such sharp contrast to today’s vitriol that demands little progress can be made unless all kinds of accommodations are met.
But Dr. Williams story also impresses upon the value of work as a means which contributes to the greater good. In God’s wisdom, he made a vast array of gifts and abilities in those he created so that society can benefit from them in various ways. I think this should inspire us to look for ways in which we can use the unique ways God wired us to give that to our work. As one pastor put it, “it’s not that our work gives us meaning but we give meaning to our work”.
This is particularly encouraging as I find myself in a rather frustrating employment dilemma that feels very limiting at times. But I’ve come to learn that in God’s providence, he will place us in positions where we will have opportunities to make the most of it, so to speak. There may be fences and seemingly dry ground to till, but seeking ways in which our endeavors can produce positive contributions indeed can bear much fruit.