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BY Mildred Europa Taylor, 2:30pm April 06, 2022,

Clarence Sumner Greene: The iconic neurosurgeon who came before Ben Carson

Dr. Clarence Sumner Greene. Public domain image

Ben Carson’s inspiring life story of how he went from mediocrity to graduating top of his class is a best-seller popular with African Americans and millions of Africans around the world. His crowning achievement as the first Black neurosurgeon to successfully separate a pair of Siamese twins co-joined at the head earned him cult status in the African-American community.

Even though in recent times his actions and statements have continued to alienate him from Black and other minority communities, he remains famous largely for his “Gifted Hands”. And perhaps he wouldn’t have come this far in the field of neurosurgery but for pioneers like Dr. Clarence Sumner Greene whose achievements paved the way for other African Americans to expand the field of neurosurgery.

The first board-certified Black neurosurgeon in the U.S., Greene was born on December 26, 1901, in Washington, D.C. He moved to New York City at age 10 when his mother remarried. He returned soon to D.C. where he lived with his aunt whose husband was a dentist. Greene performed well in school both in academics and sports. Charles Drew, who would also become an American surgeon creating the first blood bank, was Greene’s classmate at Dunbar High School.

After graduating from high school, Greene became a dentist, just like his aunt’s husband. Greene graduated with a D.D.S. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1926, but dentistry was not the only profession he wanted. So from 1926 to 1927, he enrolled in a pre-medical program at Harvard University. Three years later, he interned at Cleveland City Hospital before returning to the University of Pennsylvania to earn a Bachelor of Arts in 1932.

Greene was still not satisfied so he enrolled at Howard Medical School where he graduated with a medical degree in 1936 when he was 34. He went on to complete seven years of general surgery residency including a rotation under his old classmate, Drew. Greene then served four years as a professor of surgery at Howard University but he still wanted more. At this moment, he was having a calling as a neurosurgeon but there was no neurosurgery program at Howard medical school.

So in 1946, he traveled to Canada where he had the chance to train under Dr. Wilder Penfield, a groundbreaking researcher and surgeon at the Montreal Neurological Institute. Earning applause from Penfield, Greene became the first individual of African descent certified by the American Board of Neurological Surgery on October 22, 1953.

Greene went on to serve as Chair of Neurosurgery at Howard. There, he successfully performed numerous brain surgeries until his death in 1957 at the age of 56. Today, thanks to legends like Greene, there are Black neurosurgeons conducting hundreds of difficult and impressive surgeries, saving lives. His son Clarence Sumner Greene, Jr. also became a celebrated pediatric neurosurgeon.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: April 6, 2022


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