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Treating Hearts, Growing Minds

February is both Black History Month and American Heart Month. The latter was established in 1964 to urge people to recognize the nationwide problem of heart and blood vessel diseases. Treating certain heart conditions with surgery began in the nineteenth century. One of the first documented successful pericardium (the sac covering the heart) surgeries to treat a wound was performed in 1893 by Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, an African American surgeon at Provident Hospital in Chicago 

Williams was born in 1856 in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. After his father died, his mother moved to Rockford, Illinois, where Williams eventually joined her. He later entered Chicago Medical College (now Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine) and graduated in 1883. Williams opened his own medical office in Chicago. In 1889, he was contacted by his friend Reverend Louis Reynolds, whose sister, Emma, was being refused entry into nursing programs due to her race.  

Williams met with other Black doctors to find a program in the city that would admit Emma, but he and his colleagues were met with barriers. Despite being on staff at many area hospitals, they had very little influence within them. Reynolds and Williams determined that establishing a new nursing program for African Americans was the best course of action, as it would create educational opportunities for Black women and attempt to shield them from hostile white supremacist learning environments. 

Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses was founded in 1891 as the first Black owned and operated hospital in the United States. It was located at 29th and Dearborn in the Douglas community area on ChicagoSouth Side. Two years later, Emma Reynolds and three other women became the program’s first graduating class.  

Learn more about the Black nurses of Provident Hospital.  

From leftUndated portrait of Daniel Hale Williams. CHM, ICHi-021719Undated photograph of nurses in front of Provident Hospital, CHM, ICHi-040212 

Chicago History Museum Sharing Chicago Stories