Remembering Revolutionaries – Black History Month


Bessie Coleman, Daniel Hale Williams, and Vivien Theodore Thomas

TOCCI recognizes Black History Month by acknowledging African American revolutionaries – some were the first in their fields, others left lasting impacts on American history; all act as inspiration to future generations.

Bessie Coleman was the first black woman to fly.

Born in a 1-room shack to a family of 15, Coleman worked in the cotton fields to help her family survive but dreamed of flying. When no aviation school in the U.S. would accept her, she learned French, attended a prestigious flight school in France, and earned her international pilot’s license in 1921.

She later fulfilled other dreams: owning her own plane and opening a flight school. Her “figure eights” and loops dazzled audiences as she gave flight lessons across the country. Tragically, she fell to her death during a test flight with a mechanic a few years later, as airplanes at the time did not have roofs or seatbelts. The Challenger Pilots’ Association of Chicago flies over Coleman’s grave ever year.

Daniel Hale Williams performed the first successful open-heart surgery.

His career began with his late father’s barbering business in Illinois, but he aimed to pursue an education. He apprenticed under an accomplished surgeon, trained at Chicago Medical College, and later taught at his alma mater. In 1891 he opened Provident Hospital, the only inter-racial medical employer, and was an early adopter of sterilizing equipment for procedures. He was affectionately called “Dr. Dan” by patients.

His famed surgery occurred in 1893 with James Cornish, a man stabbed in the chest. Dr. Williams successfully sutured Cornish’s pericardium. In 1913, Williams was elected as the only African American charter member of the American College of Surgeons.

Vivien Theodore Thomas was a laboratory supervisor who worked with a surgeon to develop revolutionary cardiac procedures.

Although he worked as a research assistant operating on animals, he was paid as a janitor.  
His research in hemorrhaging and shock saved thousands of soldiers wounded in WWII. Through experimentation, his successful canine heart surgery led to a cure for babies with heart disease.   
Although Thomas developed surgical techniques, he lacked a medical degree and was never allowed to operate on a living patient. Decades after his initial success Johns Hopkins presented Thomas with an honorary doctorate.