Learning how to overcome adversity might be difficult if one studies only a single person. But hearing Dr. Benjamin Carson ’73 speak wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
Carson, a renowned neurosurgeon and a Yale Corporation fellow, addressed a capacity crowd of New Haven residents, Yale students and staff members in Woolsey Hall Saturday. He spoke at length about his rise from a life of poverty to a successful career as the head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University.
The University promoted the event extensively in New Haven and on campus, and city residents — especially schoolchildren — came out in droves, making up the majority of the audience.
Carson said his own childhood was particularly troubled. His mother, one of 24 children, got married when she was 13 years old, only to discover later that her husband, Carson’s father, was a bigamist. Carson’s parents divorced when he was 8 years old.
The now-famous surgeon talked of the time he and his friends spent jumping onto moving trains and even crawling under them. He said that he was thankful to still have all his limbs in place — and that some of his friends were not as lucky.
For a long time as a child, Carson said, he remained detached from schoolwork. His nickname at school was “dummy.”
“I thought of myself as a stupid person,” he said.
But as he became a teenager, Carson said, things began to change. He became interested in a wide variety of subjects ranging from geology to classical music. He began to read widely, and he improved his grades considerably, eventually winning admission to Yale.
After completing Yale College and medical school at the University of Michigan, Carson eventually joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins. In 1997, he led the first team of doctors to successfully perform a separation of Siamese twins joined at the head.
But Carson said that not all of his classmates were similarly fortunate.
“At my high school’s 25th anniversary reunion, you know what happened to all the cool kids? They were dead,” he said.
He said his life and career have led him to the conclusion that a main component of success for inner-city children is the ability to look beyond just wanting to be cool, instead examining where their skills lie.
“I started asking myself what I was really good at, and I said to myself, ‘You would be a really good brain surgeon,'” he said. “What we need is to recognize what our gifts and talents are.”
Carson said that a major problem with American society is that it currently does not put enough emphasis on intellectual pursuits, focusing instead on star athletes and entertainers.
“We live in a society where we pay the average shortstop 100 times more than the average schoolteacher,” he said. “You begin to develop a certain image of what success is.”
Carson also said that the continuing importance of the United States rests in part on the ability of its young people to become hardworking citizens. If the country wants to remain a world leader, he said, it must develop a stronger moral compass.
“We need to recognize that the Romans and the Greeks began to philosophize themselves into oblivion,” he said. “Now, political correctness says everything is OK, and as long as I can explain it away, it’s all right. We reached a stage where some people say we shouldn’t talk about God because that would offend someone.”
Rather than developing unanimity of thought, he said, it is important that people in American society be capable of expressing a diversity of opinions.
Before Carson began speaking, Vice President of New Haven and State Affairs Bruce Alexander introduced him as a Corporation trustee and encouraged the audience of primarily New Haven residents to take advantage of the opportunities available to them at Yale. He said the University was a door that had opened for Carson.
“Ben Carson is surely one of Yale and New Haven’s own,” Alexander said. “Ben Carson is also one of Yale’s own because he visits New Haven regularly.”
The crowd responded to Carson’s message with overwhelming approval, giving him several standing ovations and rounds of applause.
“He is a very humble, soft-spoken, spiritual man,” said Linette Walker Parker, a local New Haven resident who knew Carson while he was a college student.
Carson has written three books, most recently his autobiography, “Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story,” which was given out to many of the children present. He said that, in contrast to how little the mind is valued by today’s youth, his career as a neurosurgeon has allowed him to more accurately see how powerful the brain is.
“If I sat you down right here and made you open your eyes for one second and look at the crowd, and then I told you to close your eyes,” Carson said. “Then if I sat you down 50 years from now and planted an electrode in your head, you could remember every single person that you saw and what they had on. Your brain remembers everything you see.”
–Staff Reporter Elise Jordan contributed to this story.