“When I decided to become a neurosurgeon, there had only been eight black neurosurgeons in the history of the world,” he said. “Really from the very get-go, I was sort of treading new ground.”
At Hopkins, Carson pioneered a lifesaving surgical procedure for children with epilepsy and in 1987 vaulted to national recognition when he led a surgical team that successfully separated twins conjoined at the head.
A few months later he signed a contract with a small Seventh-day Adventist press to publish his autobiography. Before the book was finished, Carson and his co-writer had concluded that his life story was worthy of much wider distribution and changed publishers.
“Some people who were very well versed in literature said: ‘This book is amazing. This is going to be a classic,’ ” Carson recalled. “I was a little skeptical, but they were right.”
The book, titled “Gifted Hands,” was published in 1990 by Zondervan, the country’s largest Christian press, and was an immediate hit with inner-city teachers who saw the black physician as a role model for their students.
Demand for Carson as a speaker soared. “I lost four secretaries in one year because people were calling and putting so much pressure on them,” Carson recalled.
Carson and his wife started a nationwide scholarship program to reward academic achievement — and he was name-checked on the HBO television drama “The Wire.”
Some of Carson’s fellow doctors have criticized his relatively low output of scholarly articles in medical journals. But in the Christian publishing world, Carson has been prolific, writing four books since 2000. “Gifted Hands” has sold almost 2 million copies and has become a standard part of many evangelical home-school curricula.
“It just sells and sells and sells,” says Stan Gundry, a senior vice president at Zondervan, a Christian media company and unit of Harper Collins.
As a public speaker, Carson has been drawing big audiences since the mid-1990s. Six times a year, as many as 800 students pack into the main auditorium at Johns Hopkins Hospital for one of his “Think Big” lectures in which he shares his faith-based philosophy. Last summer, a medical school in Lagos, Nigeria, was named after him.
“For him, the attention was natural,” said James, his longtime physician assistant. “For the rest of us, it was crazy. . . . This has become much, much more than a medical practice. With each new book, movie or prayer breakfast speech there is a whole new surge of people who are interested in him.”