Who Is Ben Carson?
Ben Carson was born in Detroit, Michigan, on September 18, 1951. Carson went from being a poor student to receiving academic honors and eventually attending medical school. As a doctor, he became director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital at age 33 and earned fame for his groundbreaking work separating conjoined twins. He retired from medicine in 2013, and two years later he entered politics, making a bid to become the Republican candidate for U.S. president. Carson dropped out of the race in March 2016 and became a vocal supporter of Republican nominee Donald Trump, eventually earning selection as President Trump's secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Birth and Family Background
Benjamin Solomon Carson was born in Detroit, Michigan, on September 18, 1951, the second son of Sonya and Robert Solomon Carson. His mother was raised in Tennessee in a very large family and dropped out of school in the third grade. With limited prospects in life, she married Baptist minister and factory worker Robert Carson when she was 13. The couple moved to Detroit and had two children.
Sonya eventually discovered her husband was a bigamist and had another secret family. After the couple divorced, Robert moved in with his other family, leaving Sonya and her children financially devastated.
Ben was 8 and Curtis, his brother, was 10 when Sonya began to raise them as a single mother, reportedly moving to Boston to live with her sister for a time and eventually returning to Detroit. The family was very poor and, to make ends meet, Sonya sometimes toiled at two or three jobs simultaneously in order to provide for her boys. Most of the jobs she had was as a domestic worker.
As Carson later detailed in his autobiography, his mother was frugal with the family's finances, cleaning and patching clothes from the Goodwill in order to dress the boys. The family would also go to local farmers and offer to pick vegetables in exchange for a portion of the yield. Sonya would then can the produce for her boys' meals. Her actions, and the way she managed the family, proved to be a tremendous influence on Ben and Curtis.
Sonya also taught her boys that anything was possible. By his recollection many years later, Carson had thoughts of a career in medicine. For medical care, his family would have to wait for hours to be seen by one of the interns at hospitals in Boston or Detroit. Carson observed the hospital as doctors and nurses went about their routines, dreaming that one day they would be calling for a "Dr. Carson."
Power of Reading
Both Carson and his brother experienced difficulty in school. Ben fell to the bottom of his class and became the object of ridicule by his classmates. Determined to turn her sons around, Sonya limited their TV time to a few select programs and refused to let them go outside to play until they had finished their homework.
She required them to read two library books a week and give her written reports, even though with her poor education, she could barely read them. At first, Ben resented the strict regimen, but after several weeks, he began to find enjoyment in reading, discovering he could go anyplace, be anybody and do anything between the covers of a book.
Ben began to learn how to use his imagination and found it more enjoyable than watching television. This attraction to reading soon led to a strong desire to learn more. Carson read literature about all types of subjects, seeing himself as the central character of what he was reading, even if it was a technical book or an encyclopedia.
Carson would later say that he began to view his prospects differently, that he could become the scientist or physician he had dreamed about, and thus, he cultivated an academic focus. A fifth grade science teacher was one of the first to encourage Carson's interests in lab work after he was the only student able to identify an obsidian rock sample brought to school.
Within a year, Carson was amazing his teachers and classmates with his academic improvement. He was able to recall facts and examples from his books at home and relate them to what he was learning in school.
Still, there were challenges. After Carson received a certificate of achievement in the eighth grade for being at the top of his class, a teacher openly berated his fellow white students for letting a black boy get ahead of them academically.
At Southwestern High School in inner-city Detroit, Carson's science teachers recognized his intellectual abilities and mentored him further. Other educators helped him to stay focused when outside influences pulled him off course.
Despite his academic successes, Carson had a raging temper that translated into violent behavior as a child. In his autobiography, he stated that he once tried to hit his mother with a hammer because she disagreed with his choice of clothes. (His mother had in fact said in a 1988 Detroit Free Press article that she was the one wielding the hammer, with her other son Curtis intervening in the argument.) At another time, he claimed to have inflicted a head injury on a classmate in a dispute at his locker. In a final incident, Ben said he nearly stabbed a friend after arguing over a choice of radio stations.
According to Carson, the only thing that prevented a tragic event was the knife blade allegedly broke on the friend's belt buckle. Not knowing the extent of his friend's injury, Carson ran home and locked himself in the bathroom with a Bible. Terrified by his own actions, he started praying, asking God to help him find a way to deal with his temper, finding salvation in the Book of Proverbs. Carson began to realize that much of his anger stemmed from constantly putting himself in the center of events happening around him.
Burgeoning Surgical Career
Carson graduated with honors from Southwestern, having also become a senior commander in the school's ROTC program. He earned a full scholarship to Yale, receiving a B.A. degree in psychology in 1973.
Carson enrolled in the School of Medicine at the University of Michigan, choosing to become a neurosurgeon. In 1975, he married Lacena "Candy" Rustin, whom he met at Yale. Carson earned his medical degree, and the young couple moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he became an intern at Johns Hopkins University in 1977. His excellent eye-hand coordination and three-dimensional reasoning skills made him a superior surgeon early on. By 1982, he was chief resident in neurosurgery at Hopkins.
In 1983, Carson received an important invitation. Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth, Australia, needed a neurosurgeon and invited Carson to take the position. Resistant at first to move so far away from home, he eventually accepted the offer. It proved to be an important one. Australia at the time was lacking doctors with highly sophisticated training in neurosurgery. Carson gained several years worth of experience in the year he was at Gairdner Hospital and honed his skills tremendously.
Carson returned to Johns Hopkins in 1984 and, by 1985, he became director of pediatric neurosurgery at the age of 33, at the time, the youngest U.S. physician to hold such a position. In 1987, Carson attracted international attention by performing a surgery to separate 7-month-old occipital craniopagus twins in Germany. Patrick and Benjamin Binder were born joined at the head. Their parents contacted Carson, who went to Germany to consult with the family and the boys' doctors. Because the boys were joined at the back of the head, and because they had separate brains, he felt the operation could be performed successfully.
On September 4, 1987, after months of rehearsals, Carson and a huge team of doctors, nurses and support staff joined forces for what would be a 22-hour procedure. Part of the challenge in radical neurosurgery is to prevent severe bleeding and trauma to the patients. In the highly complex operation, Carson had applied both hypothermic and circulatory arrest. Although the twins did suffer some brain damage and post-operation bleeding, both survived the separation, allowing Carson's surgery to be considered by the medical establishment the first successful procedure of its kind.
Separating Conjoined Twins
In 1994, Carson and his team went to South Africa to separate the Makwaeba twins. The operation was unsuccessful, as both girls died from complications of the surgery. Carson was devastated, but vowed to press on, as he knew such procedures could be successful. In 1997, Carson and his team went to Zambia in South Central Africa to separate infant boys Luka and Joseph Banda. This operation was especially difficult because the boys were joined at the tops of their heads, facing in opposite directions, making it the first time a surgery of this type had been performed. After a 28-hour operation, that was supported by previously rendered 3-D mapping, both boys survived and neither suffered brain damage.
Over time, Ben Carson's operations began to gain media attention. At first, what people saw was the soft-spoken surgeon explaining complicated procedures in simple terms. But in time, Carson's own story became public—a troubled youth growing up in the inner city to a poor family eventually finding success.
Soon, Carson began traveling to schools, businesses and hospitals across the country telling his story and imparting his philosophy of life. Out of this dedication to education and helping young people, Carson and his wife founded the Carson Scholars Fund in 1994. The foundation grants scholarships to students and promotes reading in the younger grades.
Biggest Medical Challenge
In 2003, Ben Carson faced what was perhaps his biggest challenge: separating adult conjoined twins. Ladan and Laleh Bijani were Iranian women who were joined at the head. For 29 years, they had literally lived together in every conceivable way. Like normal twins, they shared experiences and outlooks, including earning law degrees, but as they got older and developed their own individual aspirations, they knew they could never lead independent lives unless they separated. As they told Carson at one point, "We would rather die than spend another day together."
This type of medical procedure had never been attempted on conjoined adults because of the dangerous outcomes. By this time, Carson had been conducting brain surgery for nearly 20 years and had performed several craniopagus separations. He later stated he tried to talk the two women out of the surgery, but after many discussions with them and consultations with many other doctors and surgeons, he agreed to proceed.
Carson and a team of more than 100 surgeons, specialists and assistants traveled to Singapore in Southeast Asia. On July 6, 2003, Carson and his team began the nearly 52-hour operation. They again relied on a 3-D imaging technique that Carson had utilized to prepare for the Banda twins' operation. The computerized images allowed the medical team to conduct a virtual surgery before the operation. During the procedure, they followed digital reconstructions of the twins' brains.
The surgery revealed more difficulties outside of the girls' ages; their brains not only shared a major vein but had fused together. The separation was completed during the afternoon on July 8. But it was soon apparent that the girls were in deep critical condition.
At 2:30 p.m., Ladan died on the operating table. Her sister Laleh died a short time later. The loss was devastating to all, especially Carson, who stated that the the girls' bravery to pursue the operation had contributed to neurosurgery in ways that would live far beyond them.
Because of his unflagging dedication to children and his many medical breakthroughs, Carson has received a legion of honorary doctorate degrees and accolades, and has sat on the boards of numerous business and education boards.
Accolades and Books
In 2002, Carson was forced to cut back on his breakneck pace after developing prostate cancer. He took an active role in his own case, reviewing X-rays and consulting with the team of surgeons who operated on him. Carson fully recovered from the operation cancer-free. The brush with death caused him to adjust his life to spend more time with his wife and their three children, Murray, Benjamin Jr. and Rhoeyce.
After his recovery, Carson still kept a busy schedule, conducting operations and speaking to various groups around the country. He has also written several books, including the popular autobiography Gifted Hands (1990). Other titles include—Think Big (1992), The Big Picture (1999), and Take the Risk (2007)—are about his personal philosophies on learning, success, hard work and religious faith.
In 2000, the Library of Congress selected Carson as one of its "Living Legends." The following year, CNN and Time magazine named Carson as one of the nation's 20 foremost physicians and scientists. In 2006, he received the Spingarn Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the NAACP. In February 2008, President George W. Bush awarded Carson the Ford's Theatre Lincoln Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And in 2009, actor Cuba Gooding Jr. portrayed Carson in the TNT television production Gifted Hands.
As Carson focused more on politics than on medicine, he became known as an outspoken conservative Republican. In 2012, he published America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great. In February 2013, Carson attracted attention for his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. He criticized President Barack Obama for his positions on taxation and healthcare.
The following month he announced that he was officially retiring from his career as a surgeon. That October, he was hired by Fox News in October 2013 to work as a contributor. Then in May 2014, Carson published his No. 1 New York Times bestseller One Nation: What We Can All Do To Save America's Future. [Read our interview with Ben Carson.]
On May 4, 2015, Carson launched his official bid for the Republican presidential nomination at an event in Detroit. “I’m not a politician,” Carson said. “I don’t want to be a politician because politicians do what is politically expedient. I want to do what’s right.”
During the Campaign and the End of the Trail
With a crowded field of contenders, Carson was one of the 10 top candidates who participated in a Fox News presidential debate in early August.
Over the ensuing months, Carson rose through the ranks to become a leading contender among the nominees against outspoken rival Donald Trump and was seen as a favorite among evangelicals. (Carson is a Seventh Day Adventist.) In October, he also released another book, A More Perfect Union.
After Carson began his presidential campaign, several news sources questioned statements he had made about his background in Gifted Hands. Having asserted in the book that he was granted a full scholarship for admission to West Point, news magazine Politico reported that Carson had never applied to the military academy, which his team confirmed. There were also questions concerning the accuracy of his statements about being a violent youngster, with CNN conducting an investigation into Carson's school days and life in his old neighborhood.
Despite early momentum, Ben Carson's campaign never caught much fire with voters. Turn out at his rallies was enthusiastic, but small compared to the other leading contenders. He survived the gradual attrition of candidates through the fall and into the new year, and erroneous news reports that he was withdrawing from the campaign. But his poor showing during Super Tuesday on March 1, 2016, all but sealed his fate.
On March 2, 2016, Ben Carson announced that he saw no path forward in his campaign and chose not to attend the Republican debate on March 3, in his hometown of Detroit. The next afternoon, at the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference), he spoke before an enthusiastic crowd about his values and the issues he felt important in the current campaign. He thanked his campaign staff and volunteers, especially Branden Joplin, an Iowa staffer who was killed in a car crash during the Iowa caucuses. He then stated, "I’m leaving the campaign trail.” There was a softened moan from the crowd, then a standing ovation.
Later, when asked where he would send his supporters, he related a story of someone who said said he would not vote if Carson were not running. Carson, described this as troubling, suggesting that not voting at all was giving their vote to the other side. He encouraged his supporters to act responsibly, do their civic duty, and vote. He did not endorse another candidate at that time, but later threw his support behind Donald Trump.
As the campaign continued, Carson became one of Trump's most loyal supporters, stumping for him around the country leading up to the election. On November 8, 2016, Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States, winning the majority of electoral college votes. Amidst reports about Trump naming Carson to a cabinet position in his administration, Carson's friend and business manager Armstrong Williams told the press: "Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience, he's never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency."
On December 5, 2016, Trump announced he was nominating Carson as the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). "Ben Carson has a brilliant mind and is passionate about strengthening communities and families within those communities," Trump said in a statement.
Despite Democratic opponents' concerns over Carson's lack of experience in the housing field, the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee unanimously approved Carson's nomination on January 24, 2017. The Senate confirmed his nomination in a 58-41 vote on March 2, 2017.
Carson's first year in office largely flew under the radar. However, in late February 2018, it was reported that a former chief administrative officer had filed a complaint with a federal whistleblower agency over her treatment at the HUD. The former officer alleged she had been demoted for refusing to allocate funds for a costly makeover of Carson's office, including a $31,000 dining room set, and described an environment in which high-level officials instructed her to skirt the rules or break them entirely. Carson also came under fire for inviting son Ben Jr., an investor, to department meetings, which was seen as a conflict of interest.
A week later, The New York Times revealed a broader picture of the problems plaguing the HUD, including Carson's inability to influence the president and stave off significant budget cuts. Furthermore, the secretary's lack of experience threatened to torpedo his planned pet project, a series of centers designed to provide low-income families with one-stop access to educational, job training and healthcare services.
"There are more complexities here than in brain surgery," said Carson. "Doing this job is going to be a very intricate process."
Called to appear before the House Appropriations subcommittee in March to discuss the HUD's budget, Carson instead spent much of the time explaining the $31,000 dining room set. He said he had "dismissed" himself from the decision-making in that case, leaving it up to his wife, though recently released emails under a Freedom of Information Act request showed that he had input in the purchase.
In March 2019, Carson told Newsmax TV that he planned to leave his HUD post at the conclusion of President Trump's first term. "I would be interested in returning to the private sector because I think you have just as much influence, maybe more, there," he said.
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