WASHINGTON - Baltimore neurosurgeon Benjamin S. Carson said he was "humbled" when President Bush draped the nation's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, around his neck yesterday.
But such accolades are routine for the doctor who persevered through a childhood of poverty and urban violence to become the youngest department head at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a benefactor distributing thousands of scholarship dollars each year.
Four months ago, Carson was at the White House to receive a Ford's Theatre Lincoln Medal, awarded to individuals who exemplify the spirit of the 16th president. Last month, Hopkins announced an endowed professorship that will link Carson's name with the university's. "I'm still coming down off of that," he said.
There is undeniable cachet, however, in an award created during the administration of President John F. Kennedy to recognize lifetime achievement and distributed sparingly enough that its value persists.
"I was just very grateful that people are starting to recognize some of the work I am trying to do," Carson, 56, said in an interview after the ceremony, referring to his promotion of reading programs and college education for at-risk high school students. He called high school dropout rates an "epidemic" and said, "Sometimes I feel people aren't paying attention."
Born in Detroit to a barely literate mother who married at age 13 and soon left her husband to raise two sons alone, Carson overcame what he has described as a temper problem as a teen and went on to attend Yale University and the University of Michigan medical school. He gained fame as a pediatric neurosurgeon for, among other things, leading the separations of five sets of twins conjoined at the head between 1987 and 2004. He is also skilled in hemispherectomies, a procedure to remove half the brain to prevent seizures.
The Carson Scholars Fund, founded with his wife, Candy, has given more than 3,400 scholarships to high school students over the past 14 years.
Carson's mother, Sonya, was in the audience at the White House ceremony, and Bush singled her out as he summed up the doctor's life to an invited audience of several hundred.
The president praised her doggedness in ensuring that her children took their education seriously.
'Forces of nature'
"Some moms are simply forces of nature who never take no for an answer," Bush said. "I understand," he added, drawing laughter for the allusion to his own mother.
"Every week the boys would have to check out library books and write reports on them," Bush said. "She would hand them back with check marks, as though she had reviewed them - never letting on that she couldn't read them."
When Bush said, "Welcome to the White House," Sonya Carson stood and waved to a round of applause in the East Room, where she sat near Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, former Sen. Bob Dole and the actor Cuba Gooding Jr. - who will portray Carson in an upcoming film.
A false start
Bush read a detailed account of Carson's life and achievements, and the doctor took a few steps forward to receive the medal. However, he was supposed to wait for the president to talk about the five other winners.
The premature timing drew a good-natured rebuke from Bush, who looked Carson back to his seat near a large portrait of Martha Washington and chided: "The bestowing part will take place a little later, Ben."
Upon completion of the six introductions and the formal reading of a citation by a military officer, Bush smiled broadly at Carson and summoned him closer, so he could clasp a blue ribbon bearing the medal around the doctor's neck.
Carson joins a notable list of Medal of Freedom winners in the medical field, including Dr. Jonas Salk, who developed a vaccine for polio, and Dr. Denton Cooley, who received his surgical training at Hopkins and in 1968 performed the first heart transplant. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the top AIDS research official at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, was also honored yesterday.
Others in the latest group of Medal of Freedom recipients include retired Marine Gen. Peter Pace, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Donna E. Shalala, president of the University of Miami and secretary of health and human services in the Clinton administration; Laurence H. Silberman, a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and co-chairman of the Iraq Intelligence Commission; and the late Rep. Tom Lantos of California, the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress.
Carson is "such a role model," said Maryland Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who attended the ceremony.
The White House visit gave Carson a chance to chat privately with Bush about nonmedical topics, including offshore oil exploration. Carson said he told Bush, a former oilman, that it would be difficult to convince the public that drilling has become more environmentally sound today than it was 30 years ago.
"He said, 'You are absolutely right,'" Carson said.