Benjamin S. Carson
Benjamin S. Carson
In 1987 Dr. Ben Carson marked a milestone in neurosurgery when he successfully separated a pair of Siamese twins conjoined at the head, an operation that is arguably one of medicine's most significant accomplishments. Carson also made surgical history when he performed a successful hemispherectomy (removal of half the brain) on a young girl who suffered interminable seizures. In yet another groundbreaking procedure, he operated on an unborn twin suffering from hydrocephaly—cerebrospinal fluid on the brain—that caused an abnormal expansion of the baby's head. Carson was able to relieve the swelling and remove the surplus fluid—all while the infant remained in its mother's uterus.
Carson was born on September 18, 1951, in Detroit, the son of Robert Solomon and Sonya Copeland Carson. His father left when Carson was eight, forcing his mother, a domestic worker, to raise Carson and his brother Curtis on her own. In his 1990 autobiography Gifted Hands, cowritten with Cecil Murphey, Carson described himself as a hot-tempered child and a poor student. However, his mother was able to improve his grades dramatically by prohibiting him from watching television, and by requiring that he read two books a week. Carson ended up graduating at the top of his high school class.
With his outstanding academic record, Carson was in demand among the nation's highest-ranking colleges and universities, and he enrolled at Yale University, from which he graduated with a B.A. in 1973. From Yale he went to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he enrolled in the School of Medicine. In 1975 he married Lacena Rustin, whom he had met at Yale; they eventually had three children. Carson earned his medical degree in 1977, and the young couple moved to Maryland, where he became a resident at Johns Hopkins University. By 1982 he was the chief resident in neurosurgery in Johns Hopkins.
Carson spent 1983 at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth, Australia, returning to Johns Hopkins in 1984, where he became director of pediatric neurosurgery in 1985. In the same year he performed the first of several significant neurosurgical operations, a hemispherectomy, or removal of half the brain, on an 18-month-old girl who had been having more than 100 seizures a day. The girl was healed, and Carson went on to perform numerous other successful hemispherectomies.
On September 5, 1987, in an operation that required 22 hours and a team of 70 people, Carson separated Patrick and Benjamin Binder, seven-month-old twins joined at the head. Although the twins sustained some brain damage, both survived the separation, making Carson's the first successful operation of its kind. Part of the operation's success was due to Carson's application of a technique he had seen used in cardiac surgery: a drastic cooling of the patients' bodies to stop blood flow. This ensured their survival during the delicate period when the surgeons were separating their blood vessels.
Carson performs some 500 operations a year, three times as many as most neurosurgeons. Because his career has represented a triumph over circumstances, he has become a well known inspirational writer and speaker, with several books in addition to Gifted Hands. He has received a number of awards, including the American Black Achievement Award from Ebonymagazine in 1988; the Paul Harris Fellow from Rotary International (1988); the Candle Award from Morehouse College in 1989; and numerous honorary doctorates. In 1994 Carson and his wife (who goes by the name of Candy) established the Carson Scholars Fund, Inc., which offers scholarships to students, including those in elementary school, whose scholarship money is held in trust until they are ready for college.