Ben Carson announced his candidacy for president Monday. But more than two decades earlier, Fortune profiled the neurosurgeon, who overcame poverty, indifference to education and bad temper.
Ben Carson was a neurosurgeon long before he was a budding politician and now political candidate after declaring his candidacy for president on Monday. In 1992, Patricia Sellers profiled the man as part of a collection of nine successful people who survived childhood traumas and tragedies. Here’s what she found:
Ben Carson, 40 — His are the hands that doodled and danced aimlessly on elementary school tests, threatened his mother with a hammer, and stabbed a friend whose belt buckle deflected the knife.
The same hands have since saved many lives. As one of the world’s leading pediatric neurosurgeons, Carson has developed and performed several surgical procedures for children suffering from brain tumors and chronic seizures. In his most acclaimed operation, Carson, chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, led a team of 70 doctors, nurses, and technicians in the first successful separation of Siamese twins joined at the back of the head.
Says Carson: ”People who know me now find it absolutely incredible that I ever got mad about things.”
He often tells his life story to kids, hoping it might inspire them to get an education and escape the ghetto as he has. Carson’s father, a part-time preacher and factory worker, walked out when Ben was 8, leaving his mother, Sonya, to support Ben and his older brother, Curtis, now 42 and an engineer at Allied-Signal. To do so, she worked at a number of low-paying jobs simultaneously. As a youngster in Detroit, Ben never cared about school and was known as the class dummy. So when he was 10, his mother reduced watching TV to three shows a week and made him read two books instead and write reports on them.
Only years later did Carson realize she did not know how to read herself, but her assignments saved him. ”Reading was the transforming thing for me,” he recalls. ”I read about inventors and engineers and men like Booker T. Washington and Abraham Lincoln who took themselves from nowhere, through reading, to become great men.” In seventh grade he was winning spelling bees, and he became the top student in science.
He felt inspired, but Ben’s temper blocked his progress. As a young teen, he says, ”I’d hit people with bats and bricks. I was nuts.” After he knifed a friend over an argument about changing a radio station, Carson locked himself in his bathroom for three hours and prayed. Reading from the Book of Proverbs, he came upon verses that warn about temper. For example, ”He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down.” Says Carson: ”I recognized that if I couldn’t control that temper, I would never realize my dream of becoming a doctor.” That dream harks back to age 8, when he heard stories at his Seventh-Day Adventist church about missionary doctors. To him, they seemed ”the most noble people in the world.”
Graduating third in his class at Detroit’s Southwestern High, Carson had only $10 to spend on college application fees. He decided to apply to whichever school won that year’s College Bowl, then a popular TV quiz show. Yale’s ouster of Harvard determined his next move. Scholarships and grants helped pay the aspiring doctor’s way through Yale and the University of Michigan School of Medicine. Carson now lives in a Baltimore suburb with his wife, Candy, their three sons, ages 5 through 8 — and his mother. Inspired by her son, Sonya Carson earned a high school degree at 43 and went on to a two- year college to get an associate of the arts degree. At 64, she now works as an interior decorator.