The First Heart Operation on a Human Being Who Went on to Live 50 Years Longer

Opened chest cavity that gives access to the heart

Care for life, knowledge, dexterity, and disregard of reputation resulted in successful first heart surgery


By Conrado D. Fontanilla

The firsts

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams was the first surgeon who opened the chest and operated on the heart of a human being, a man.

The first man who was operated on his heart was James Cornish of Chicago, United States of America.

The first man who went through heart surgery was a black: Cornish was a black.

It was a medical first, a feat in dexterity and confidence, and a glory for the colored man as Dr Williams was a black.

The historic event took place at the Provident Hospital of Chicago.

The unique Gregorian calendar day: July 9,1893.

The none’s

There was no x-ray to help the surgeon.

There was no blood transfusion to replace lost blood.

Sulfa drugs were not yet around to control infection.

Ether was the only anesthesia available.

Upstream against social and medical culture

Dr. Dans, as Dr. Williams was fondly called, apprenticed for two years under Dr. Henry Palmer, an “excellent surgeon who had been the director of the largest military hospital during the Civil War and surgeon general of Wisconsin for ten years” ( Haber, L. “Daniel Hale Williams.” Black Pioneers of Science and Invention.1970:179). This apprenticeship could qualify Dr. Dans as a surgeon since apprenticeship for two years under a surgeon was the practice at that time. However, Dr. Dans wanted the best so he enrolled at the Chicago Medical School, one of the best medical schools in the United States. The course took 18 months to complete. Although instruction was of high standards, laboratory work was virtually absent.

Dr. Dans graduated from medical school in 1883 and opened an office in Chicago at 31st street, Michigan Avenue.

At this time a revolution in medicine was taking place. In England, research on vaccination was spurred by smallpox, the leading cause of death in the 18th century.

Edward Jenner, a product of the apprenticeship system, became involved in the search for cure of smallpox. He came up with the idea of protecting people against smallpox with the microbes of cowpox.

In May 1796 Jenner completed his first experiment. He successfully proved his ideas. Jenner published his observations and experimental results in1798 in a Book “An Inquiry into the Causes and Effect of the Variolae Vaccinae.”

In the 1880s rabies was a dreaded disease. In 1885, Louis Pasteur, a French bacteriologist and physician, demonstrated the protection afforded by a vaccine against rabies.

“It was chiefly in his work on spontaneous generation and on rabies that he encountered the strongest opposition to his ideas (which were, for the time, revolutionary) from medical circles and the press” (Encyclopedia Britannica 2009). He inaugurated the germ theory of diseases in 1881-1884, a breakthrough in medicine.

Sir Joseph Lister, a British physician, applied Pasteur’s germ theory in the treatment of wounds. It took the medical world 40 years to accept the germ theory and apply antiseptics.

When Dr. Dans arrived on the scene, the germ theory of disease was creeping in, Lister’s antiseptic (carbolic acid) was becoming widely used, and ether as anesthetics was already available.

Still surgery on the chest and abdomen was avoided because infection was almost sure to follow and the patient would die of it. The reputation of the surgeon would be tarnished.

If Dr.Williams was acceptable to the blacks, his color was anathema to the whites. “…Negro doctors could not get hospital appointments because of racial prejudice, and therefore could not get their patients into hospitals” (Haber, L. “Daniel Hale Williams.” Black Pioneers of Science and Invention.1970:182).

In his practice, Dr. Williams turned more to surgery in the dining rooms and kitchens of his patients. Mrs. LeBeau was his first surgery patient whom he operated on to remove her hemorrhoids. He soon acquired a reputation as a successful surgeon. He had stints as surgeon at the South Side Dispensary in Chicago; clinical demonstration and clinical instructor at the Chicago Medical College; surgeon at the City Railway Company; appointment to the Illinois State Board of Health in 1889.

Reverend Louis Reynolds, pastor of St. Stephen’s African Methodist Church spurred him to this idea: “There must be a hospital for Negroes but not a Negro hospital.”

“Here Negro sick and poor would receive the best of care, ambitious young Negro doctors would have their chance, and young black women, not admitted to white schools, would be trained for the nursing times demanded” (Haber, L. “Daniel Hale Williams.” Black Pioneers of Science and Invention.1970:184).

The Provident Hospital and Training School Association was incorporated on January 23,1891. The provident Hospital opened in May 1891.

The economic depression of 1893 threatened the existence of Provident Hospital. At this time, Frederick Douglas, a Negro leader in the Reconstruction effort from the American Civil War came to its aid. Douglas urged potential donors for contributions to the hospital. Contributions soon came in.

The historic operation on the heart of a man unfolded at the Provident Hospital.

First patient operated on

James Cornish, a young Negro expressman was stabbed in a saloon with a knife in the chest near the heart. He was rushed to the Provident Hospital where he collapsed from shock and loss of blood. Death was imminent; opening his chest cavity was a virtual sentence to death either.

Would Dr. Williams risk his reputation? If he applied the standard treatment of “absolute rest, cold and opium” toward inevitable death he could not be blamed.

Dr. Williams opened the chest cavity. The knife used in stabbing Cornish had cut the sac around the heart (pericardium) about one-quarter of an inch. Worse, it had also cut about one-tenth of an inch into the heart muscle. Dr. Williams judged that the heart muscles did not need sewing up. The heart pericardium needed suturing. He sewed it up then he closed the wound.

Two black and four white physicians were witnesses to the operation. It was “the first time a surgeon had entered the chest cavity.”

The headline “Sewed Up His Heart” of the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean announced to the world Dr. Williams’ feat.

Fifty-one days after the operation, Cornish was discharged from the Provident Hospital a “completely recovered” man. For fifty years more he survived and lived.

Three and a half years had already passed when Dr. Williams made an official report of the heart operation.

In February 1894, Dr. Williams was appointed chief surgeon of the Freedmen’s Hospital. This hospital was run by the Freedmen’s Bureau, established in March 1865 as part of the Reconstruction after the American Civil War “to help emancipated slaves adjust themselves to their new conditions.”

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Comments 2 comments

mkvealsh profile image

mkvealsh 5 years ago

I recently visited Idlewild, the first place in the USA where blacks could vacation and purchase property. Dr. Daniel Williams was the first, I believe, to purchase land there, and he was very instrumental in the development of Idlewild. Your hub was very interesting and I really enjoyed learning more about him!


conradofontanilla 5 years ago

Hi mkvealsh, thanks for stopping by. I resisted embellishing Dr. Williams's feat. I just let the facts out and behold!

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