The Thrilling Tale Of The Very First Heart Surgery

In 1893, as far as the world was concerned, surgery on the heart was unheard of and a stab in the heart was nearly always fatal. Today, eighty percent of people who have been stabbed in the heart wind up surviving. Here's the story of how one doctor started the process of changing the odds.

On July 9th, 1893, James Cornish had worked the kind of irritating day that left him too wound up to go straight home. That was bad luck for him. Everyone was wound up exactly the same way, because, in Chicago that day, the heat stayed oppressive long after dark. That was also bad luck. A fight broke out at Cornish's favorite bar. Bad luck. And one of the fighters, in the confusion, knifed Cornish right in the heart. That was extremely bad luck.


It was when Cornish was taken to Provident Hospital that his luck changed in a big way. Provident Hospital was founded by Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, a man whose commitment to the greater good caused him to work tirelessly at his hospital despite being plenty busy on the Illinois Board of Health. Williams was a black man — the first to go to Chicago Medical College — and he was distressed by the lack of opportunities for other black men and women to get trained as nurses and doctors. Provident Hospital was founded not so much to provide for the medical needs of the local community as to provide for its educational needs.

Wiliams was an academic-minded doctor, but he also had a dash of bravado, and it was lucky for Cornish that he did. Although at first Cornish seemed to recover, the next day he rapidly lost ground. Williams, despite having little medical equipment and no idea what was going on inside of Cornish's chest, decided to be the first in the world to crack open a human chest and try to fix a human heart.

Williams cut open Cornish's chest, pulled back a rib, cleared away the blood, and then saw what he could do. Cornish was, and again this is a relative term, lucky. The small wound in his heart muscle seemed to be closing up on its own. The pericardium, the sac around the heart, had received an injury that would, up until that very day, have been fatal. Carefully, Williams stitched the tear in the sac closed with catgut. Equally carefully, he closed up the chest and waited to see if Cornish would live or die.


Cornish spent fifty-one days in the hospital, but he lived. A surgery that had been inconceivable at the beginning of July was, by the end of September, a recognized medical possibility.

Top Image: Heikenwaelder Hugo

[Sources: The Man Who Touched His Own Heart, The First Heart Operation.]


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