When James Cornish stumbled into the recently established Provident Hospital one summer night in 1893, he probably wasn’t thinking about making history or being part of a seminal moment in both American medical advancement and racial politics. Instead, he was more likely concerned with the significant amount of blood he was losing from the several deep stab wounds in his chest, which clearly required emergency treatment.

Fortunately, Cornish, a young Black man, staggered into the race-inclusive Provident Hospital, the first Black-owned and operated hospital in the United States, during an evening in which its founder, a brilliant surgeon named Daniel Hale Williams, was on the premises. As Cornish’s condition worsened, Williams made the bold choice to operate directly on his heart, attempting what was at the time medically unprecedented.

Williams rose from humble beginnings to become a trailblazer

Born in Pennsylvania in 1856, Williams began working by the time he was 10 years old, following his father’s death from tuberculosis. Williams apprenticed for a shoemaker in Maryland and then ran off to join the rest of his family in the Midwest, where he worked in the family barbershop business. When he was 22, Williams was inspired by a local doctor to pursue a career in medicine.

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Systemic segregation meant that medical education opportunities were very limited for Black Americans at the time, but after studying for several years with a famed surgeon for two years in Wisconsin, Williams matriculated at Chicago Medical College (which after several permutations eventually became the medical school at Northwestern University). He took out loans for his first two years and then was helped along by his brother, a local lawyer. It would prove to be a very wise investment on his brother’s part.

Williams established his own private practice after graduating in 1883, but he had to perform care — including surgeries — on patients inside their homes, as hospitals at that point largely did not allow Black doctors to practice in their facilities.

Few hospitals allowed Black patients to be treated within their walls, either, reinforcing the discrimination found in every other aspect of society. This injustice exacerbated tragic racial disparities in both medical outcomes and career opportunities for a burgeoning number of Black doctors and nurses. In the late 1880s, Williams was approached by the pastor brother of an aspiring nurse named Emma Reynolds, who had been rejected by every nursing school in Chicago simply because she was Black. Williams knew that something had to change.

In 1888, Williams began formulating plans for his response. He spent the next three years finding backers and scouting real estate in Chicago, and in 1891, he opened Provident Hospital and Training School Association. It was a major event in the Black community, with locals and notable leaders celebrating its arrival. It would provide training to nurses and medical care to the Black community. At first, the plan was to have it only admit Black patients, but it was soon decided that it should take all patients, regardless of race.

Daniel Hale Williams

Daniel Hale Williams
Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

Williams largely improvised during the successful surgery

Two years after the hospital opened, Cornish, a train expressman, took his fateful stumble into Provident, deeply wounded and rapidly losing blood. He’d been in a bad bar brawl and someone had plunged a knife into his chest several times, and as Cornish slipped into shock, it was clear that proven methods of treatment would not save him.

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Drastic action had to be taken. With six doctors watching him, Williams applied early anesthesia and began carefully exploring Cornish’s chest cavity. He discovered a damaged left internal mammary artery, stitched it up with a suture and found a stab wound near the right coronary artery. With the heart still beating — something now circumvented in open-heart surgery by redirecting blood flow — Williams was forced to use forceps to steady the organ. He then sewed the wound back together before stitching Cornish’s chest closed.

Cornish not only survived but after 51 days of recuperation, he left the hospital fully recovered. He would live another 20 years, a walking miracle that foretold the future of medicine.

He received praise from President Cleveland

While later reports suggest that perhaps another doctor in St. Louis performed a similar surgery two years before Williams, his improvised operation was greeted in the press as a major moment for both Chicago and the medical field altogether. In fact, it was such a widely hailed success that Williams was appointed the next year by President Grover Cleveland to serve as the surgeon-in-chief at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, DC.

The role at Freedmen’s was a very prestigious commission, which he used to push new innovations and ensure a racially integrated staff. In 1895, to further promote healthcare equity, Williams co-founded the National Medical Association, which served as the equivalent to the white people-only American Medical Association.