Benjamin Carson is the director of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, where he performs more than four hundred complex surgeries every year. He is a professor of neurosurgery, oncology, plastic surgery, and pediatrics. He is noted for his use of cerebral hemispherectomy to control intractable seizures as well as for his work in craniofacial reconstructive surgery, achondroplasia (human dwarfism), and pediatric neurooncology (brain tumors). Carson has also become a leading motivational speaker, retelling the stories of his trials and tribulations in an effort to inspire others. Carson is the author of three books that explore the spiritual and philosophical beliefs that have helped him succeed.
Carson's parents, Sonya and Robert Carson, divorced when Benjamin was eight years old. They had married when she was thirteen and he was twenty-eight and moved from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Detroit, Michigan, where Robert got a job at the Cadillac factory. In his autobiography, Gifted Hands, Carson called the day his father left "the saddest day of my life." Sonya raised her sons on her own, with little education and no financial help from their father. Carson described her as "hardworking, goal-oriented … refusing to settle for less." Still, the strain occasionally became too much for her, and she sought psychiatric help. The family was bolstered by the emotional and financial support they received when they moved in with relatives in Boston. They shared a grim tenement with a loving aunt and uncle and a host of rats and cockroaches.
Despite all the changes that year, Carson has fond memories of those days: He received his first chemistry set for Christmas and became interested in the Seventh-Day Adventist church the family attended. In what he called his first religious experience, Carson was inspired by a pastor's sermon and began to believe he could become a doctor. Later in his life, Carson recalled his mother's words about God: "Bennie, if you ask the Lord for something, believing he will do it, then He will do it." He often took those words into the operating room with him. In 1961, once she had recovered financially, Sonya Carson moved with her children back to Detroit.
Legal Blindness Affects Grades
Carson's dreams of becoming a doctor were not supported by the grades he earned in his early school years. Though he excelled in science, he was at the bottom of his class in fifth grade. He was taunted by schoolmates and began to believe he was dumb, as well as poor. Carson's second-hand clothes did not help his social status either. A pair of glasses—Carson was discovered to be almost legally blind—inspired the boy to renew his effort in school, and with the support of his mother and teacher, he rose to the top of his six-grade class.
During his school days, in the early 1960s, Carson and his brother encountered prejudice. A gang of white boys threatened to kill the young Carsons, who attended the mostly white Wilson Junior High. After being ranked top of his class in seventh and eighth grades, Benjamin watched a white teacher berate a group of white students for "not trying hard enough," he wrote in Gifted Hands. "She let them know that a black person shouldn't be number one in a class where everyone else was white."
The teenage Carson eventually reacted to the racial and financial pressures. At age fourteen, he was involved in a series of serious fights. In one fight, he inadvertently gashed a friend's forehead after striking him in anger. In another, he attempted to stab a boy with a knife. The boy's large belt buckle deflected the blade from slicing into his belly. Carson was frightened by his own temper and knew it was something he had to face. He turned to his pastor and his faith to understand his anger, which he called "pathological." High school ROTC also helped him learn discipline, and he achieved the rank of ROTC colonel. After high school, he was accepted to Yale University on a ninety-percent scholarship.
In college, Carson planned to major in premed with a minor in psychology then go on to medical school. But he was unprepared for the academic challenges of Yale. He had skated through high school, cramming for tests. He had never learned to study. Faced with the idea that low grades would keep him from medical school, however, he quickly improved his study skills, becoming what he called an in-depth learner. Carson spent his college summers in Detroit, working. His summer jobs included package delivery, highway crew supervisor, and auto factory worker. He graduated Yale in 1973 and attended medical school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Realizes He Has Gifted Hands
It was at one of his summer jobs at a steel company that Carson discovered something unique about himself. While spending his days operating a crane, he began to realize that he had extraordinary hand-eye coordination. He also realized that he had an innate ability to see and understand physical relationships; he described the sense in Gifted Hands as being able to "see … and think in three dimensions." As his career developed, Carson realized the value of this skill. "For me it is the most significant talent God has given me and the reason people sometimes say I have gifted hands."
- Born in Detroit, Michigan on September 18
- Graduates Yale University
- Marries Lacena "Candy" Rustin
- Decides to pursue neurosurgery
- Spends a year in Australia as senior registrar; first son is born
- Named chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions
- Performs successful hemispherectomy on Maranda Francisco
- Successfully separates Binder twins; begins motivational speaking
- Publishes first book, Gifted Hands
- Publishes second book, Think Big
- Publishes third book, The Big Picture
- Chosen by CNN and Time magazine as one of America's top 20 physicians and scientists
- Survives surgery for prostate cancer
- Ignites ethical quandary by attempting separation of Bijani twins
- Named by President George W. Bush to the U.S. Council on Bioethics
Carson was in his third year of medical school, in his one-month neurology rotation, when he realized he excelled in the discipline. He impressed his neurology professors by coming up with a new surgical technique and became the man with all the answers as the students made their rounds to patients. Soon, exhausted fellow students were turning over their patients to Carson. He was as tired as they were, but "I loved being a medical student," he wrote in Gifted Hands. "It was the most fun I'd ever had in my life."
Though he had planned to pursue psychiatry, Carson decided on neurology. The way he saw it, there were three undeniable reasons for his choice: first, his interested in neurosurgery; second, his growing interest in the workings of the brain; and third, his extraordinary hand-eye coordination. Carson was awarded numerous honors for his clinical work at the University of Michigan. Carson's next step was Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. After a year of internship, he faced six years of residency—one more year of general surgery and five of neurosurgery. Carson spent the fifth year of his residency doing research on the areas of brain tumors and neuro-oncology.
Marries College Sweetheart
As his academic and professional life was moving along successfully, so was Carson's personal life. On July 6, 1975, he married Lacena Rustin, whom everyone called Candy. The two had met four years earlier when she was a freshman at Yale. The Carson's moved to Baltimore, where Candy became an assistant for a Johns Hopkins professor and earned her master's degree in business from the university.
The young resident quickly began to observe bothersome behavior from Johns Hopkins doctors. They were snobbish and ignored the clerks and aides who kept the hospital going. Carson saw paying attention to workers as an opportunity, and whenever he had the chance, he would visit with these workers. He quickly realized these people were more in touch with the patients and could teach the young doctor a thing or two, which they did.
Carson faced some prejudice from patients who did not want treatment from a black doctor. Carson's supervising physician very politely pointed to the door and invited these people to use it. Should they decide to stay, the head doctor told them, Carson would be handling their case. None of the patients ever left. Carson had one contentious relationship at the hospital, however, with a white chief resident who was clearly uncomfortable with a black intern at Johns Hopkins. Carson quietly endured his outbursts and caustic comments and went about his business. He knew reacting would be just what the man wanted. Carson was a resident at Johns Hopkins from 1978 to 1982.
Earns Surgical Experience in Australia
In 1983, the Carson's traveled to Perth, Australia, where Carson had accepted a position as a senior registrar. Candy was by then pregnant with the couple's first child. In addition to concerns about his wife's health, Carson was worried about the racial climate in Australia, where segregation had been the policy until 1968. To his relief, the couple liked Australia immediately. They had a built-in extended family in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church they attended. Carson took on more than his share of surgeries at the hospital and by the end of his one-year contract had become a swift and competent brain surgeon.
Colleagues at Johns Hopkins had enough faith in the thirty-three-year old doctor that, upon his return, Carson was named chief of pediatric neurosurgery. Carson got pleasure from watching people react to the news that this young black man was their neurosurgeon. Yet, within a year of his appointment, Carson faced one of the toughest surgeries of his career.
By the time Carson met four-year-old Maranda Francisco and her parents in 1985, the family had spent three years trying to alleviate the worsening seizures that had plagued Maranda since birth. Doctors had finally told them that Maranda had Rasmussen's encephalitis, and she would continue to suffer more seizures, become paralyzed, and die. Carson decided to perform a radical, risky hemispherectomy on the girl (surgical removal of the left half of the brain). The family accepted the risks. In the face of both the major surgical risks and the unknown functional abilities of an incomplete brain, Carson was elated with the hoped-for results. Maranda recovered completely, with only limited affect to her fine motor skills and a small limp. Her brain had been able to reroute all of its needs to the remaining right hemisphere. Carson stepped away from the media spotlight after the surgery. He went on to perform many successful hemispherectomies and other radical, last-resort neurosurgical procedures.
Carson was the last hope for most of his patients. Doctors all over the world called Carson and Johns Hopkins to take cases that had exhausted their resources. Carson became the go-to surgeon for operations others could not or would not perform, and he always took his faith into the operating room with him.
Makes Surgical History
Carson met the Binder twins in 1987. The German brothers were conjoined; they were born attached at the back of the head. Because of the location of the attachment, the boys would never be able to sit, crawl, or walk. They would be bedridden, lying on their backs for life. The parents wanted their boys to live separately. The infants shared no organs but did share the major vein responsible for moving blood from the brain to the heart. Carson put together a team of seventy surgeons, anesthesiologists, technicians, and nurses who studied the details of the surgery for five months, leaving nothing to chance. The procedure took twenty-two hours. Both the surgery and the recovery were fraught with problems, and the twins had to undergo subsequent surgeries, but nothing out of order for such a complex procedure. It was the first such surgery that had produced two normal, healthy, separate boys. Carson received international acclaim for his leading role in the surgery.
The demands on Carson's time were excessive. Patients took up a great deal of his time. But as the chief pediatric neurosurgeon at a teaching hospital, Carson also had to conduct research, write papers, prepare lectures, and remain involved with academic projects. He also was heavily involved in his church and had started sharing his story in motivational talks to young people. In 1990, he published his first book, a memoir titled Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story. At the end of the book, he explained how he pared back professional and academic responsibilities to make more time for his family. Instead of fourteen- to seventeen-hour days, he committed to twelve-hour days during the week and weekends with his wife, sons, and mother. Candy Carson and the three Carson boys comprise the Carson Four, an accomplished string quartet.
Becomes a Motivational Speaker, Author
Carson's second book, Think Big: Unleashing Your Potential for Excellence, was more directly motivational than his first. While the book is built on his personal experience, Carson refined and outlined some concrete lessons anyone can apply. In fact, Carson divided his personal philosophies into an acrostic, in which each letter of the words, think big, represents a reminder of his principles of success: Talent, Honest, Insight, Nice, Knowledge, Books, In-depth Knowledge, God. He wrote a chapter on each word, stressing the importance of education, self-reliance, positive thinking, and faith. He liberally used Bible verses to support his ideas. His third book, The Big Picture: Getting Perspective on What's Really Important in Life, was a more critical analysis of Carson's philosophies and their place in the world.
Though every elective surgery is fraught with ethical quandaries, Carson's decision to operate on 29-year-old conjoined twins in 2003 was particularly tough. Successful operations are not subjected to the kind of second-guessing that plagues those that do not end well. Laden and Laleh Bijani had spent their lives attached at the head and had decided that a chance to live separate lives was more important than life itself. Adult conjoined twins had never been successfully separated. Doctors tried to dissuade the women, who were law-school graduates, but they were determined. Carson was called in to lead the surgical team and felt compelled to try to help them. "I was convinced they would seek separation no matter who performed the surgery," he told the New York Times. The women died. Supporters of the surgery believed it was the women's right to choose the surgery; critics argued that doctors had an ethical obligation to refuse them.
Over the course of his career, Carson has been a recipient of numerous honors and awards, including more than thirty honorary doctorate degrees. He is a member of the American Academy of Achievement, the Horatio Alger Society of Distinguished Americans, the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society, and many other prestigious organizations. He was named by the Library of Congress as one of eighty-nine Living Legends on the occasion of its two-hundredth anniversary and in 2001 was chosen by CNN and Time magazine as one of America's top twenty physicians and scientists. He sits on many boards, including the board of directors of Kellogg Company, Costco Wholesale Corporation, and the American Academy of Achievement, and he is an Emeritus Fellow of the Yale Corporation, the governing body of Yale University. In addition to his academic responsibilities, he is a highly sought motivational speaker who has spoken in venues that range from high school graduations to the 1997 President's National Prayer Breakfast.
Gives Talented Kids a Hand
Early in his career, Carson and his wife developed the idea for the Carson Scholars Fund, to provide scholarships for promising young people who lack the money for school. The group recognizes young people of all backgrounds for exceptional academic and humanitarian accomplishments. Carson is also the president and co-founder of the Benevolent Endowment Network (BEN) Fund, an organization which provides grants to assist families with non-covered medical care expenses for pediatric neurosurgery patients with complex medical conditions.
In 2004, President George W. Bush named Carson to the Council on Bioethics. The group of scholars, scientists, theologians, and others was created in 2001 to produce reports on human cloning, stem cell research, and the use of biotechnology to enhance human beings. Carson and two others were selected to replace two members of the group whom Bush had dismissed. Critics noted the three replacements were more inclined toward Bush's conservative stance on these matters than the ousted members, citing Carson's public statements about God and faith. The move dismayed some critics, who saw it as "Bush stacking the council with the compliant," Elizabeth Blackburn, a renowned biologist who had been dismissed, told the Washington Post. Many saw it as a case of Bush putting politics ahead of science. "On all these matters," wrote a Boston Globe editorialist, "the president should be seeking the best information and opinions, not just ones he agrees with."
Every doctor becomes a patient at some point. In 2002, at age 50, Carson was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer. A colleague at Johns Hopkins performed prostate surgery, and Carson did well in recovery. Before the surgery, Carson told a reporter for the Washington Post that he was turning the outcome of the surgery over to "the Lord, [who] can heal anything."
Grady, Denise. "2 Women, 2 Deaths and an Ethical Quandry." New York Times, 15 July 2003.
Jennings, Veronica T. "A Top Doctor's Journey from Poverty to Surgery." Washington Post, 22 June 1989.
McCombs, Phil. "For Ben Carson, Surgery Brings Good News." Washington Post, 8 August 2002.
"Stem Cell Ideologues." Boston Globe, 3 March 2004.
Weiss, Rick. "Bush Ejects Two from Bioethics Council; Changes Renew Criticism That the President Puts Politics Ahead of Science." Washington Post, 28 February 2004.
"Benjamin S. Carson Sr., M.D." U.S. Council on Bioethics. http://www.bioethics.gov/about/carson.html (Accessed 28 January 2005).