The human brain, enthuses neurosurgeon and Yale alumnus Dr. Benjamin S. Carson, is "by far the most sophisticated organ system in the universe" with "billions, maybe even trillions" of interconnections that scientists have only begun to understand.
"With a brain like that, why would anyone say the words, 'I can't'?" asked Dr. Carson '73 during a recent visit to his alma mater as a guest of the Tetelman Fellowship at Jonathan Edwards College. "Being smart is one thing, but the fact of the matter is that if you have a normal brain, you are smart. Any average person can do anything."
Dr. Carson, who is currently director of pediatric neurosurgery at The Johns Hopkins University, pointed to his own experiences as proof of that statement. At age 10, he noted, he was living in a tenement with his brother and mother, a divorcee who held down two to three jobs as a domestic worker. "I was always the first one to sit down in a spelling bee," recalls the neurosurgeon, yet he could easily reel off information about cars, athletes and television shows.
One day, his mother heard him bragging about a "D" he had received on a test -- instead of his usual "F" -- and she quickly instituted some changes. She strictly limited the amount of TV her two boys watched, and she made them read two library books a week and submit written reports about them to her, "which she couldn't read, but we didn't know that at the time," says Dr. Carson, explaining that his mother had only a third-grade education. "Within a year and a half, I went from being at the bottom of the class to the top of the class." Later, as a high school student living in Detroit in the late 1960s, Dr. Carson was a fan of the television show "GE College Bowl" -- so much so that he became determined to appear as a contestant. Realizing that he needed to expand his knowledge of classical art and music to be successful on the show, he began to teach himself about the topics by reading and listening to tapes of classical music while driving in his car -- a habit that earned him "many strange looks," admitted Dr. Carson. "Here was this black kid in Motown driving around listening to Mozart."
Because he had only enough money to pay the application fee to one college, Dr. Carson decided to apply to the winner of the "GE College Bowl" grand championship. That year, it was Yale, which "trounced" Harvard to earn the title, he recalls. To his disappointment, that was also the final year that "GE College Bowl" was aired. However, the time he spent studying for the show came in handy a few years later, he noted, when he was one of over 120 individuals vying for two internship slots at Johns Hopkins and discovered that his interviewer was "a tremendous classical music buff" who was impressed with Dr. Carson's knowledge on the subject. The alumnus also revealed that his brother went on to become an engineer, and his mother eventually taught herself to read, went to college and became an interior decorator. Dr. Carson had titled his Oct. 15 lecture "Medicine: Putting Ivy in the I.V." Just as the Ivy League institutions offer an "extra dimension" to their students, said the neurosurgeon, he believes in "putting an extra dimension into the medical experience."
"Doctors are healers of society," he told the crowd gathered in the Yale University Art Gallery lecture hall. Physicians have historically been "heavily involved in the community," and have invested their time, resources and intelligence to healing society's "major illnesses," he said. "That's what I think an Ivy League doctor should be doing." Dr. Carson has, in fact, been widely recognized for his motivational work with young people and, along with his wife, has founded the "USA Scholars" program, which awards $1,000 scholarships to students in grades 1-12 for outstanding academic and "humanistic" achievement. "People need to exert influence wherever they have influence," he said, noting that, when facing a major problem, individuals can either "throw their hands up in the air in disgust or say, 'I'm going to do everything I can to change things.'
"We need to understand that if part of the boat sinks, eventually the rest goes down too," he said.
-- By LuAnn Bishop