Williams was born to a mixed-race family in Pennsylvania. His father, a white man, was married to a free Black woman, and was an active abolitionist who died when he was 11.
Although some members of the family lived as whites, and he could also have done so, Daniel refused to "pass" and actively identified himself as Black. Soon after his father died his mother sent her children to live with different relatives, except Daniel, who was apprenticed to a shoemaker in Baltimore, while she went to live in Illinois. After a while Daniel left his apprenticeship and followed her, but although the reunion was happy, his mother soon moved to Maryland with his sisters to rejoin the other children, and Daniel elected to stay in Illinois.
For the next several years he worked and lived with various cousins, but when he was 16 he struck out on his own and moved to Wisconsin, where he became a barber, living very happily with his employer's family, and also attended high school. His employer-cum foster father later financed his medical training in Chicago, and he graduated in 1883.
Unable to practice in Chicago's segregated hospitals, he opened his own, the first integrated hospital in the USA, in 1891. He also established two nursing schools for Black nurses. At Provident Hospital Williams made history in 1893 by performing the world's first open-heart surgery, on a stabbing victim (who lived another 50 years). He was also the first Black man on the Illinois State Board of Health and later chief surgeon at Washington's Freedmen's Hospital. He was the only Black doctor invited to be a founder member of the American College of Surgeons (1913) and one of the founders of the National Medical Association (the medical society founded in 1895 for Black doctors).
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