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Black History Month Spotlight

This Black History Month, we would like to spotlight two Black medical professionals for their extraordinary work in the field of health: Dr. Ben Carson and Dr. Justina Ford. Please read below to learn more about them.

Dr. Ben Carson

Carson’s father left them when he was 8 and Curtis, his brother, was 10, and Sonya began to raise them as a single mother. The family was very poor and Sonya toiled at two or three jobs at once to provide for her boys. She was frugal with the family's finances, cleaning and patching clothes from Goodwill to dress the boys. The way she raised her family had a tremendous influence on Carson and Curtis.

Sonya taught her boys that anything was possible. Carson first dream of a career in medicine, when his family had to wait for hours for medical attention by one of the interns at the hospital, watching with interest as doctors came and went, he imagined that one day he would be paged as "Dr. Carson."

In school, Carson did poorly and was ridiculed by his classmates. Determined educate her sons around, Sonya made them read two library books a week and give her written reports, though, with her third-grade education, she could barely read them. At first, Carson balked, but after several weeks, he began to enjoy reading, and to  discover that he could go anyplace, be anybody and do anything when lost in a book.

His absorption of all kinds of subjects led him to see his future differently. Carson could become the scientist or physician he dreamed about as he expanded his academic focus. He was able to recall material from his books at home to relate them to what he learned in class. When Carson received a certificate of achievement in the eighth grade for being at the top of his class, a teacher tactlessly scolded his fellow students for letting a Black boy best them.

Despite his academic successes, Carson had a raging temper evidenced as violent behavior as a child. Terrified by his own actions, he started praying, asking God to help him find a way to deal with his temper. Carson started to recognize that much of his anger stemmed from regularly putting himself in the center of events and began to shift his focus.

He earned a scholarship to Yale University, and received a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1973. In those years at Yale, he met Lacena (“Candy”) Rustin; the couple married in 1975 and had three children. Next he attended the University of Michigan, to earn a medical degree in 1977, and later completed a residency in neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School in BaltimoreMaryland. In 1984, at the age of 33, Carson became director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. He was one of the youngest doctors in the United States to earn such a title. He also held professorships in plastic surgery, oncology, and pediatrics at Johns Hopkins.

In his successful separation of occipital craniopagus twins in 1987, Carson used a radical approach in which the twins’ body temperatures were lowered to the point of circulatory arrest. The success of the procedure and the reconstructive techniques employed gained Carson world renown as a pediatric neurosurgeon. In 1997, in a 28-hour-long operation, he led a team of South African and Zambian surgeons in a separation of twins conjoined at the top of the head (type 2 vertical craniopagus twins). Carson was also known for having performed the first successful rescue of a hydrocephalic twin using an intrauterine shunt. The shunt served to drain fluid under high pressure away from the developing brain of the fetus and into the amniotic cavity of the mother. Carson’s techniques for hemispherectomy and craniofacial reconstructive surgery were influential in the fields of neurosurgery and plastic surgery.

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Dr. Justina Ford

Dr. Justina FordA pioneer Dr. Justina Ford was the first African American woman to be licensed to practice medicine in Denver, Colorado and Colorado as a whole (*Happy Birthday, Dr. Justina Ford*).

Born in 1871 in Knoxville, Illinois, as a child, she would dissect frogs and shadow her mother who was a nurse. (Justina Ford: Denver’s First Female African American Physician). Dr. Ford attended Chicago’s Herring Medical College for her medical education. She was prevented from practicing in Denver hospitals so did her work from her home in the Five Points. She was also prevented from being a member of the Denver and Colorado medical associations (Who is Dr. Justina Ford). She helped people of underserved communities in Denver focusing on people in the Five Points area (*Happy Birthday, Dr. Justina Ford*). She did not turn away people due to race, gender, language, citizenship, or ability to pay; many of the people she treated had been turned away from Denver hospitals. (Justina Ford: Denver’s First Female African American Physician).

Her focus was obstetrics and pediatric work. It is estimated she delivered over 7,000 babies in her career. After moving to Denver in 1902, she continued to practice medicine for fifty years in the Five Points. (Who is Dr. Justina Ford). In 1950, two years before her death she was admitted to both the Colorado and the American Medical Associations. (Justina Ford: Denver’s First Female African American Physician).

You can visit Dr. Ford’s Five Points home, as today it is the Black American West Museum (Black American West Museum & Heritage Center).