Marking Time highlights one of the more than 2,500 markers that have been installed throughout the state since 1914 as part of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, operated by PHMC's State Historic Preservation Office.

Daniel Hale Williams was born January 18, 1856, the son of Daniel and Sarah Ann Price Williams, in Hollidaysburg, Blair County. When his father died in 1867, his mother, who moved to Annapolis, Maryland, arranged an apprenticeship as a shoemaker for her son. Dissatisfied with shoemaking, Williams later settled in Janesville, Wisconsin, along with his sister Sally. He found work at Harry Anderson’s Tonsorial Parlor and Bathing Rooms where the proprietor took the siblings into his home and encouraged Williams to complete his high school education.

Williams intended to pursue a career in law but declared it “quarrelsome.” His interest in the medical profession grew while apprenticing for prominent Janesville physician Henry Palmer (1827–1895), chief surgeon of the U.S. Army Hospital at York during the American Civil War. In 1880, Williams enrolled in the prestigious Chicago Medical School, affiliated with Northwestern University, and known today as the Feinberg School of Medicine. After graduating in 1883, his patients affectionately called him “Doctor Dan.” Williams adapted the findings of germ theory promoted by French scientist Louis Pasteur (1822– 1895) and incorporated sterilization procedures learned in medical school. Dismayed by high mortality rates from infections in hospitals, he preferred operating during house calls.

After several nursing schools denied admission to a friend’s sister because of her race, Williams sought the help of wealthy individuals, African American and white. The following year, in 1891, he founded the Provident Hospital and Training School Association in Chicago as an interracial hospital and training school for African American nurses.

In 1893, Williams operated and repaired the sac surrounding the heart of a young man stabbed in a fight. On the claim that this was the first cardiac surgery ever performed, historians cite a similar stab wound case in St. Louis in 1891, but they agree that Williams was the first African American to perform this procedure.

Williams became chief surgeon of Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., in 1894. Established by the federal government to treat elderly and indigent African Americans, he improved the hospital’s quality of care, reduced its mortality rate, and established its medical school. Because the American Medical Association did not accept African American members, Williams helped establish the National Medical Association in 1895. He accepted a role as the organization’s vice president, declining the offer to be president.

Williams married Alice Johnson in 1898 and returned to Chicago, resuming duties at Provident Hospital. In 1912, he resigned after being accused of “disloyalty” to Provident by becoming an associate attending surgeon at Chicago’s Saint Luke’s Hospital. Today, affiliation with more than one hospital is common.

Williams performed 357 surgeries on ovarian cysts, reporting in 1901 that cysts were found in both African American and white patients. This proved the prevailing medical belief that cysts did not occur in African American women to be erroneous. He also successfully sutured a heavily bleeding spleen in 1902, one of the earliest of these procedures in medical history. His pioneering work in surgery, promoting medical education for African American doctors and nurses, and improving care for people of all colors earned the Pennsylvania native a state historical marker installed by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) in 1989 at the location of his boyhood home on Blair Street in Hollidaysburg, today the site of the Blair County Court House. Daniel Hale Williams died in Idlewood, Michigan, on August 4, 1931.

PHMC will observe “Black History in Pennsylvania: Communities in Common” as its annual theme throughout 2010.