Ben Carson’s inspirational life story of how he rose from obscurity to graduate first in his class is a best-seller among African Americans and millions of Africans worldwide. He achieved cult status in the African-American community by becoming the first Black neurosurgeon to successfully separate a pair of Siamese twins who were conjoined at the head.
Despite the fact that his recent acts and words have continued to alienate Black and other minority communities, he is most known for his “Gifted Hands.” And without pioneers like Dr. Clarence Sumner Greene, who paved the path for other African Americans to grow in the area of neurosurgery, he might not have gotten this far in the profession of neurosurgery.
Greene was born on December 26, 1901, in Washington, D.C., and was the first board-certified Black neurosurgeon in the United States. When his mother remarried, he relocated to New York City at the age of 10. He immediately returned to D.C., where he resided with his aunt and her dentist husband. Greene excelled in both academics and sports at school. Greene was a classmate at Dunbar High School with Charles Drew, who would go on to become an American physician and found the first blood bank.
Greene, like his aunt’s husband, became a dentist after graduating from high school. Greene graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a D.D.S. in 1926, but dentistry was not his only ambition. So he enrolled in a pre-medical program at Harvard University from 1926 to 1927. He interned at Cleveland City Hospital three years later before returning to the University of Pennsylvania to complete his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1932.
Greene was still unsatisfied, so he enrolled at Howard Medical School, where he received his medical degree at the age of 34 in 1936. He went on to complete a seven-year residency in general surgery, including a rotation with Drew, an old classmate. Greene subsequently spent four years as a surgery professor at Howard University, but he was still hungry for more. He felt called to be a neurosurgeon at the time, but Howard Medical School did not have a neurosurgery department.
As a result, in 1946, he moved to Canada to study under Dr. Wilder Penfield, a pioneering researcher, and surgeon at the Montreal Neurological Institute. Greene became the first person of African origin to be qualified by the American Board of Neurological Surgery on October 22, 1953, to the delight of Penfield.
Greene went on to become the Chair of Howard University’s Department of Neurosurgery. He performed multiple successful brain surgery there until his death in 1957 at the age of 56. Today, because of legends like Greene, hundreds of difficult and amazing surgeries are being performed by Black neurosurgeons, saving lives. Clarence Sumner Greene, Jr., his son, went on to become a well-known pediatric neurosurgeon.