*An African-American Pioneer in Medicine

On a hot summer night in Chicago, during the summer of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, a young man suffered a knife wound that should have been fatal. His name was James Cornish. He was just twenty-four years old, an expressman in the stockyards. He should have died that night. The wound was to the heart and no doctor had ever successfully operated on the heart. Even to consider such a thing was foolhardy. But luckily for him, as an African-American he was barred from most hospitals. Does that sound strange? But it was his good fortune that he could only go to Provident Hospital for the chief of surgery there, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, cared more for the man’s life than his own reputation. Another doctor might not have risked it. But Dr. Williams attempted open heart surgery to save Mr. Cornish’s life. And he was successful.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, Wikipedia Commons
Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, Wikipedia Commons

I read about Dr. Williams while researching the history of Chicago in the 1890’s for a novel I was working on. As well as his skill, I was struck by Dr. Williams’ courage on many levels, which I wanted to incorporate into my work and my portrayal of Chicago’s contradictions. The world expo, which Chicago was hosting, was called “The White City.” because of the site’s classical design. The name resonates in other ways as well. That novel was an early draft of The Singing Fire, and in subsequent drafts the whole Chicago section of the novel was cut. So I’m delighted–because of the inspiration of the Science Diversity Carnival and in honour of Black History Month–to be reminded of that scene and the great work of Dr. Williams in the history of medicine. Here is the scene, published for the first time anywhere. All the details in it about Dr. Williams and the surgery came from my research. To set it up, I should let you know that the scene takes place in the home of Emilia Grey, a Jewish woman passing as a gentile, who supplements her family income with photography portraits. (Please forgive the lack of indentation in the dialogue. I couldn’t figure out how to do it in html!) Here goes:

Daniel Hale Williams was not what she expected. After pouring over famous prints of Indians and Africans to study the fall of light and the effect of background, she was rather disappointed. The man balancing a teacup on his knee did not look coloured at all. In truth, she thought, he looked more Jewish than anything, with the reddish hints in his curly hair and a prominent nose.
“Pardon me,” she said. “But I was under the impression that you are a Negro.”
“Yes, Mrs. Grey. I am.”
“But you look rather like my father. And he was not a Negro.”
“No, I’m sure that he was not. And where do you hail from, Mrs. Grey?”
“Russia. And I lived for a time in London.”
“Well then, I don’t suppose you have many Negroes there. But in America, a drop of Negro blood colors a man. Rather potent, isn’t it, to have even one Negro ancestor.”
“How curious,” Emilia said. A Jew must have an unbroken line of ancestry, at least on the female side. The mother must be Jewish, and her mother, and her mother, all the way back, an unbroken line of mothers, whether Jewish by conversion or birth, to the  first mother, Sarah. You could have many drops of fatherly and brotherly blood of all colours. You might be baptised in an ocean of water, but if your mother was Jewish so were you, according to Rabbinic law, even if Christian missionaries thought differently. Yet if your mother’s-mother’s-mother was a gentile, all the rest of your Hebrew blood would not make you a Jew once that female line was broken, should anyone know of it.
“Dr. Williams,” she said, putting another cream cake on his plate, “nobody can be certain about one’s ancestors. It’s all hearsay, as my father would tell you.”
“Mrs. Grey, I cannot argue with that. And some members of my family are passing. There are many advantages.”
“And you?”
He shrugged. “One’s race is not a religion. One cannot sprinkle water on a cow and convert it to a fish.”
She felt queasy, as if looking through a glass floor that gave her the illusion of hanging in mid-air. “Perhaps, Dr. Williams. More tea? No—then please come to the other side of the room where my studio is set up. I have three backdrops.”
“And you’ve chosen a jungle scene?” he asked drily.
“No—the garden of Eden.”
“How primeval.” A muscle in his jaw was twitching, his mouth tense.
She pushed open the pocket doors. “It won’t show. I’m using a long lens with a shallow depth of field. Sit here, please.” She pointed to a maple wood chair in the colonial style. Beside it, a small table was piled with books, an open copy of Gray’s Anatomy on top.
“That looks quite right, Mrs. Grey.” He was not smiling, but his mouth had lost the iron edge. He had an attractive dimple in his chin. How she liked square chins. Her husband’s was round.
“Tell me about the operation while I adjust my camera,” she said. “How was the patient injured?”
“Knifed in a bar on the south side. No one seems to know who was involved in the brawl.” He smoothed his moustache.
“Keep your hands down, please, Dr. Williams.” There were public houses in the East End of London where bashing and cutting was common, usually with a broken bottle or a Whitechapel poker rather than a knife. But she was in Chicago and a lady now. “Is such brutality common?” she asked as if concerned with the city’s moral health.
“There’s a depression, Mrs. Grey. Saloons offer a free lunch, and the men that go there to eat stay to drink.”
“And your patient was colored?”
“Of course. Otherwise he’d have been taken to another hospital. Although we do not restrict our patients or our staff to any race.”
“Please continue.” She set the lens to the maximum aperture for the shortest exposure. She could take a shot of him any time, leaving the background hazy.
“The wound was to the heart.”
“But no one operates on the heart,” she said. “My neighbour’s husband was caught in a train derailment, a piece of metal pierced his chest. The wound was packed with ice.”
“And he lived?”
“No. Mrs. Jerome is a widow.”
“Exactly. I didn’t think of it at first. There was little blood, but a few hours later, Mr. Cornish had severe pain in his mid-chest. I could see that he was in shock. Pale. Pouring sweat. His pulse rapid. Should his children be fatherless and his wife a widow? I consulted my staff. They were not all in agreement. Opening the chest cavity is considered tantamount to murder. But as the head of the hospital it was my decision. My greatest concern was keeping the cavity clean. I can assure you that I washed in rather warm water before making the incision. Is this too indelicate for you, Mrs. Grey?”
“Not at all. It’s in a woman’s nature to tend the ill.” Her voice was unsteady as she remembered sickly smells in cramped rooms. “Was it very warm?” she asked.
“Terribly. One nurse was breathing into the patient to keep his breath regular and another was wiping my forehead so I could see. I made a six inch incision in the chest and detached the fifth rib from the sternum, leaving an opening two inches by one and a half inches. This exposed the pericardium. The sac that covers the heart. It had been pierced by the knife just to the left of the breastbone and below the fourth rib.”
“How exciting. I wish I’d been there.” No ancient stains and paste-eating insects in the modern world. It was doctors and nurses and all sorts of interesting instruments shining as they cut.
“The heart itself—Mrs. Grey, you cannot imagine the excitement I felt in observing the human heart beating.” His face was alight, his hands open. She clicked the shutter. “The left mammary artery was damaged. I tied it off. The heart muscle itself was slightly cut. Not enough to require suturing. I irrigated the wound with a saline solution. Then I grasped the edges of the pericardium and sewed it with a catgut suture. That was it. I closed up the chest. For better or worse. If the patient died, I could have been charged. Lost my right to practise medicine. Or put in jail. The court is not overly fond of Negro doctors.”
“Would you turn to the right, Dr. Williams? I’d like a profile. Yes, and if you would rest your hands on top of the books. Thank you. Now hold your hands in front of you. Lean forward. No, that’s too much. Back a little. Good.” Under the focusing cloth, she looked in the ground glass at his image coming toward her as if she were the patient. In the centre of the composition were the hands that could touch a living heart. “Tell me, Dr. Williams,” she asked as she emerged. “You are a man of science, and you consider yourself colored despite your appearance. What constitutes race? Is it the shape of the head?”
“Some doctors say so, but I believe it isn’t the skull, rather what’s inside that determines us,” Dr. Williams said. “My mother left me when I was eleven so that I could pass. She was dark.”
“It is difficult to deny one’s mother,” Emilia murmured.
“I cannot deny everything I remember,” he said, putting his hands together under his chin. “Memory is my race.”

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14 thoughts on “*An African-American Pioneer in Medicine

  1. Thanks so much Emily and Marie. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to share this.

    DNLee, I read a number of blogs at scienceblogs.com. The carnival & a link was in one of them. I think it’s exciting. I love to have more diverse role models for my daughters.

  2. Fascinating story, and you told it extremely well! I loved these lines:

    “…you cannot imagine the excitement I felt in observing the human heart beating.” His face was alight, his hands open. She clicked the shutter.

    Perfect timing!

  3. Cas

    Hey Lilian,

    First time at your site and I was so moved, once again, by your writing and brilliance. I always knew there was a place inside me that responds to music, sometimes to something in nature that leaves me without words, but i never would have guessed this could happen from reading words that I now see as a whole nother artistry.

    Thank you.


  4. shawnee

    hey lilian may i ask if u can send me some pictures of daniel hale williams i have a project due on the 5th of march and i need pictures of him and i cant find any good enough to print for my project,thanks shawnee.

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