This post is by Kelsey Beeghly, the 2023-2024 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.
In 1891, Daniel Hale Williams established the first Black owned and operated public hospital and medical training facility in the United States. Williams, a respected surgeon who had been denied employment in hospitals due to his race, founded Provident Hospital and Teaching School in Chicago after a Black woman, Emma Reynolds, was refused entrance into nursing school. Provident Hospital would go on to become the site of the first successful open-heart surgery and a renowned center providing access to expert care. Artifacts in the Library’s collections document the achievements of notable physicians at Provident and can spark discussions about participation in science in the past and today.
To gain an understanding of the significance of this esteemed hospital at a time of limited access, students may watch a clip of All-American News, a newsreel produced in the 1940s for a Black audience.
The clip features Theodore K. Lawless (1892-1971), a highly lauded dermatologist as well as philanthropist and medical researcher. Dr. Lawless was awarded the NAACP Spingarn Medal in 1954 and was selected to serve on President John F. Kennedy’s national board in 1961. The news segment reports that “More doctors from Provident have been admitted to the national specialty board than from any other in the country.” The American Board of Medical Specialties, established in 1933, is a professional network of physicians who have gained additional education in a medical specialty, and successfully demonstrated their knowledge in oral and written examinations. Ask students to consider how being part of a professional society helps a scientist. Why might the All-American News want to highlight Dr. Lawless?
One journalist attended a dermatology class taught by Dr. Lawless at Northwestern University’s medical school.
After the class, he reflected:
“My mind was whirling with the inconsistency of life in America. Here was a man admittedly a leader in his field. Here was a Negro teaching in a great university. Yet this same medical school which had graduated him, which gives him a place on its faculty, which takes credit for his research, by subterfuge and deceit has not matriculated a Negro student for a number of years. The bars are not visible but they are up, nevertheless.”
Ask students to reflect on the meaning of the statement, “the bars are not visible but they are up, nevertheless.” You might also ask: To what extent does bias exist in the scientific community today? How does science benefit when everyone is allowed the opportunity to be a scientist? If possible, allow time for students to find recent examples.
Reflecting on how societal biases of the past led to discrepancies can be an engaging way to teach about the socio-culturally embedded nature of science. Theodore Lawless and Daniel Hale Williams overcame barriers caused by institutional and societal prejudices to make great achievements in science.
More than a century since it first opened, and after a brief closure, Provident hospital reopened and continues to provide services to the communities in the south side of Chicago today. Sharing the personal stories behind Provident Hospital can allow students to gain inspiration from the brilliant physicians who, by overcoming barriers, contributed to both scientific and social progress.
Do you enjoy these posts? Subscribe! You’ll receive free teaching ideas and primary sources from the Library of Congress.