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March 02, 2008

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams: Heart surgeon


When you watch TV shows today, it’s not uncommon to see black doctors charging up the paddles and shouting “Clear!” or “Somebody get me a rib-spreader, stat!” When I was growing up, however, a black doctor on TV was a rarity. A black nurse, sure. Sometimes. There was the sitcom "Julia" (1968-1971) starring Diahann Carroll, groundbreaking because it was one of the first TV shows to feature a black woman in a non-stereotypical role of nurse. Before that, black women usually portrayed servants. And that was only forty years ago!

I can’t help but think how hard it must have been for black children 140  years ago just coming out of the Civil War era with very few role models to inspire them to become whatever they dreamed of becoming. That’s what’s so remarkable about Dr. Daniel Hale Williams’ journey to becoming the first surgeon, black or white, to perform open-heart surgery—and have his patient make a full recovery.

Born in 1856 in Pennsylvania, Williams didn’t start out with a burning need to become a doctor. He started out as a barber. But his fascination with a local doctor got the better of him and he soon became that doctor’s apprentice.

After two years he entered what is now known as Northwestern University Medical School, graduating in 1883. He opened his own practice in Chicago, treating many of his black patients in their homes, sometimes even performing surgery on their kitchen tables. Because of the unsanitary nature of the almost battlefield-type conditions, he had to become very informed on the latest medical discoveries in sterilization and antiseptic procedures. His reputation grew, resulting in him becoming a surgeon on staff as well as a clinical
instructor in anatomy at Northwestern. Soon he was focusing his energies on creating an interracial hospital, the Provident Hospital and Training School Association, a 12-bed hospital and school that trained black nurses and used doctors of various races. But Williams' claim to fame occurred on July 9, 1893 (the same year of Gandhi’s first act of civil disobedience halfway around the world, and the year that Colorado granted women the right to vote).

A young black man, James Cornish, had been stabbed in the chest during a bar fight. He arrived at Provident in shock and near death from loss of blood. Williams decided the only possibility of saving Cornish was to open the chest and operate internally. This was almost never done, because the risk of infection was so high as to practically guarantee death. However, 51  days after the operation, Cornish left the hospital—and lived for another 50 years.

When the American Medical Association refused to admit black doctors, Williams co-founded the National Medical Association for black doctors. In 1913 he became the only black member in the American College of Surgeons. Until his death in 1931, he continued to push for more hospitals for African Americans. If you’re African American, it makes you wonder how many of your ancestors got medical care and lived because of him. And because they lived, you are here. The heart I’m most grateful that Dr. Williams opened was his own—for all of us.

Photo Credit: Black Inventor


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Very inspirational life story. Hard to imagine. What guts and perseverance he must have had, to become a doctor in his day, with all the institutional and societal obstacles arrayed against him.

Who/what do we have in the year 2008 to compare?

Eric of Reseda

Thank you, Kareem. As a 51 year-old white man, it never ceases to amaze me just how little White America, myself very much included, knows about the contributions and achievements of black Americans. What bothers me is that our education system continues to this day to filter history, forcing our children to view our mixed past through "rose-colored" glasses. I think that if kids could see fully that this country was built, not only by Europeans, but also by Africans, Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans and a host of other peoples', we as a nation might come together more. It wouldn't hurt to also show these kids the brutal treatment of these people even as they made this nation stronger, more viable, to show them the shameful acts of white expansionists who conducted a policy of true genocide toward Native Americans. All this knowledge, accurately conveyed, would undoubtedly stir compassion, understanding, and provide the foundation for White America to fully embrace Americans of different colors as their Fellow Americans, and to experience the gratitude owed to men like Dr. Williams. Thanks again.


Amazing how some want to save lives ... and others enthusiastically support partial birth and all abortion.

danny chiaverini

kareem, you mustcheck out the career of
vivien thomas, a black with only a high school education who assisted alfred blalock, a surgeon, in performing the very
first heart operation on a blue baby in 1944.
they did not merely "open the chest" but
actually performed surgery on the heart. it is on dvd narrated by morgan freeman and it
is titled "partners of the heart". an
extraordinary relationship between a black and a white surgeons. vivien thomas
was later honored by having his portrait hung along with the famous surgeons at johns hopkins medical center. vivien thomas' story is the most overlooked in the history of famous achievers.
danny chiaverini
los angeles, ca.

lee beckom

Kareem....I have followed your career for all these years. Loved the basketball. I always thought you were a "thinker" and now I know you are. Wonderful blog you have. Keep educating all of us.
I am a 72 year old with a Masters Degree in US History and I am still learning from your blog.
Lee B

P. Patton

Kareem, I've been a fan since your days at UCLA and my question has to do with your years there. When you were at UCLA the rules did not allow you to play varsity basketball as a freshman. Looking back do you feel that you were short changed by this, most people feel that you would have made a great contibution to the team. Do you feel that the rule changes have been a good thing for student atheletes, especially since so many high profile atheletes leave college early.

Darryl Theus


Well done. With just a few well placed words you paid tribute to a man whose contributions to our great country go barely noticed. Kudos to Eric of Reseda as well. The many acknowledgments he shared speaks well of how far some of us have evolved. We may yet become the nation so envisioned by Lincoln. The jury is still out, but we are a great work in progress.

Paul Sabelka

Hi, Kareem,

Thanks for detailing the amazing accomplishments of post-Civil War Dr. Daniel Hale Williams: Heart surgeon.
To achieve so much in early medicine, to be such a path finder, gate opener and road builder, is impressive beyond
words. His audacity, courage, commitment and skill development would go far for all of us in today's world. Keep 'em coming.


Thanks again for the introduction to so many wonderful people who have been neglected throughout history.


Thanks again for the introduction to so many wonderful people who have been neglected throughout history.

Brian Apthorp

I'd rather read your blog than anything else on the Internet, these days, including the sports page. It is the sense of positive outlook, buoyed, I assume, by the stories of courage and perseverance which you bring to the blog so regularly, which is largely responsible for this, and your wide-ranging interests and knowledge of same. Hope, grounded in an intelligent, informed, and enquiring nature, fully cognizant of the harsh potentialities of life in this world, is a great, profound gift, for the possessor and those around them. I'm glad you're in this life with the rest of us.

Steve Doyle

Hi, Kareem,

Just a few days ago I read part of your book "Black Profiles in Courage", the chapters dealing with the American Revolution. (I intend to read the rest, I found it fascinating.) I'm currently doing research for my novel, "Seeds of Greed", which traces the Hammatt family from the colonial period to the end of the Civil War. One of my characters is Priscilla LeBaron whose father was a widely respected French doctor in the very English colony of Plymouth, MA. When Lazarus LeBaron died in 1773 his executors made an inventory of his estate which has been reproduced in a book entitled "Descendents of Francis LeBaron" by Mary Le Baron Esty Stockwell. This inventory is viewable online at http://books.google.com/books?id=5isxAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA50&lpg=PA50&dq=simeon+sampson+plymouth&source=web&ots=Gy-3Nf6TlD&sig=A3rxNxAmbSJmPmS45-yKA-MlLvs#PPA21,M1. I was shocked to see listed right after: "One Black Mare", "One Brown Do", "One Cow" and "four Loads of Hay" :
One Negro Boy named Nero 7 years old 26: 13: 04
One Ditto Girl named Ginna 5 years old 26: 13: 04

These children are followed by "One Saddle" and "fifty-five Sheep".

I immediately decided to build Nero and Ginna into the story. There's also a will, but makes no mention of these two children. In my book, they're going to stay with Priscilla and Abraham Hammatt and Nero will become a doctor like Lazarus LeBaron. The only other reference I've been able to find is also in Mrs. Stockwell's book. In an appendix she mentions:

NERO LEBARON,* muster and pay roll of officers and crew of the ship “Mars” (commanded by Simeon Samson). 9 mos. 10 ds. Enlisted June 2. 1780.

*Probably a former slave of Dr. Lazarus LeBaron. See inventory of his estate, page 21.

This is viewable online at http://books.google.com/books?id=5isxAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA50&lpg=PA50&dq=simeon+sampson+plymouth&source=web&ots=Gy-3Nf6TlD&sig=A3rxNxAmbSJmPmS45-yKA-MlLvs#PPA459,M1

Nero is about 14 years old in 1780. I intend to continue hunting for information regarding him and his sister but I don't expect to find much. As you have pointed out, accomplishment by Black citizens has too often gone unrecorded. I have no idea what ever became of them.

Steve Doyle

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Captain Kareem

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is considered by many fans and sportswriters to be the greatest basketball player of all time. The 7-foot-2 Hall of Fame center, famous for his indefensible skyhook, dominated the NBA for 20 years, first with the Milwaukee Bucks then with the Los Angeles Lakers. Before that he was the star of the UCLA Bruins teams that won three consecutive NCAA championships. Kareem was the NBA's MVP six times, a 19-time all-star and set the NBA all-time records in nine categories. He is the NBA's all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points, a record that may never be broken.

Since retiring as a player in 1989, Kareem has balanced his love of basketball with his love of history. In 2002 he led a USBL team, the Oklahoma Storm, to a championship. Since 2005, he has been the special assistant coach for the Lakers, working with Andrew Bynum.

In 2008 he was chosen The Greatest Player in College Basketball History.

Kareem also remains intellectually active, authoring six bestselling history books intended to popularize the contributions of African-Americans to American culture and history. His books include "Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement"; "Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes"; "A Season on the Reservation," which chronicles his time teaching basketball and history on an Apache Indian reservation in White River, Ariz.; and the current New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller, "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance."

His audio adaptation, "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Audio & Musical Journey through the Harlem Renaissance," is a four-volume compilation read by Bob Costas, Avery Brooks, Jesse L. Martin, and Stanley Crouch, and features private and fascinating conversations with dozens of icons, including Coach John Wooden, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Samuel L. Jackson, Maya Angelou, Quincy Jones and Billy Crystal. He has also been written to L.A. Times, under the Sports section.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been appearing on various radio stations and TV shows, as well as the most relevant websites talking about his life and his new audio book, On the Shoulders of Giants.

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