Henry Willard Williams, AM, MD

Henry Willard Williams, AM, MD

(December 11, 1821 - June 13, 1895)
First Chair of the HMS Department of Ophthalmology, 1871-1891
Henry Willard Williams, AM, MD

BIOGRAPHY  Henry Willard Williams was born December 11, 1821 in Boston, Massachusetts to Willard and Elizabeth Osgood Williams, and attended both the Boston Latin School and Salem Latin School. He began his clinical training at Harvard Medical School in 1844, and also trained in medical schools and hospitals in Europe for three years before receiving his MD from Harvard Medical School in 1849. 

Beginning in 1850, Dr. Williams served as an instructor in the theory and practice of medicine at Boylston Medical School for five years, and became the first American physician to focus his practice exclusively on ophthalmology (Wood, 1917, p. 8873). Also in 1850, Dr. Williams began teaching a course in clinical ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School—the first of its kind in the United States (Wood, 1917, p. 8871-2). His patients included the celebrated American poet Emily Dickinson, who sought an ophthalmic consultation with Dr. Williams during the time of the Civil War (Blanchard, 2012).

In 1864, Dr. Williams became the first Ophthalmic Surgeon at Boston City Hospital, and in 1866 he was appointed Lecturer on Ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School. In 1868, Dr. Williams received an honorary Master of Arts from Harvard University. In 1871, Dr. Williams was appointed Professor of Ophthalmology and the Chair of the newly established Harvard Medical School Department of Ophthalmology (Arch Ophthalmol. 1895, p.555).

Dr. Williams is also credited with founding the first society of ophthalmology in America— the American Ophthalmological Society—in 1864, and served as its president from 1868-1873; he also was president of the Massachusetts Medical Society from 1880-1882 (Arch Ophthalmol. 1895, p.555).

In 1891, after a severe bout of influenza, Dr. Williams resigned from his academic and clinical positions; upon his resignation, he endowed the Henry Willard Williams Professorship in Ophthalmology, which was established in 1898 (Harvard University, p. 36) which is held by chairs of the HMS Department of Ophthalmology. This pioneer of ophthalmology died from complications of influenza on June 13, 1895, and has been noted by medical historians as "no doubt the most remarkable man in American ophthalmology" (Wood, 1917, p.8872).

Portrait of Henry Willard Williams by Jacob Dutweiler Wagner. Photo: Imaging Department © President & Fellows of Harvard College
Portrait of Henry Willard Williams by Jacob Dutweiler Wagner.
Harvard Art Museums. Photo: Imaging Department.
© President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used with permission.


  • First American physician to focus his practice solely on ophthalmology
  • Delivered first series of clinical lectures on ophthalmology in the United States
  • Founded first society of ophthalmology in America: the American Ophthalmological Society
  • First Chair of the Harvard Medical School Department of Ophthalmology



  • Image of First Edition of: Williams, Henry Willard. Our Eyes, and How to Take Care of Them. Boston: James R. Osgood and Co., 1871. from the Museum of Vision, Foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology.