BEN CARSON DID NOT HAVE AN EASY childhood. When he was 8, his father abandoned the family, and he had to live in tenements in Boston and Detroit. Abysmal grades and a hair-trigger temper got him into trouble at school. At times, whites taunted and threatened him because he was black. He could easily have ended up on drugs, in prison—or in the morgue. But a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion: Ben Carson became a doctor.

Not just any kind of doctor. In 1984, at the age of 33, he became the youngest chief of pediatric neurosurgery in the U.S. at one of the world's most prestigious hospitals, Baltimore's Johns Hopkins. "Earlier this year I was speaking to the inmates at San Quentin prison," Carsons says. "And I was talking about choices in life, and it just hit me so vividly that I could have ended up in a place like that."

A lot of parents are thankful he did not. In the seven years since he joined Johns Hopkins, Carson, now 40, has become something of a medical legend, pioneering surgical procedures that have saved hundreds of children, many previously diagnosed as hopeless. He has developed a number of new methods to help kids with brain-stem tumors or with chronic seizures caused by such diseases as Rasmussen's encephalitis.

But his most famous operation was in 1987, when he led the team of 70 doctors, nurses and technicians that successfully separated Siamese twins joined at the back of the head. In previous operations of this type, at least one twin died or was left in a vegetative state. But in this case, both twins—Patrick and Benjamin Binder of Germany—happily survived. Carson "is more brave than controversial," says Edward Laws Jr., chief of neurosurgery at George Washington University, since his cases are "not the sort of thing everyone's got the guts and talent to take on."

Carson credits his mother, Sonya, 63, for his success. To make ends meet after her divorce, she rented out her small Detroit home and moved with her two young sons to live with relatives in a rundown area of Boston. Two years later she had saved enough money—by working as many as three domestic jobs at the same time—to return to Detroit, where she rented an apartment in an industrial section near some railroad tracks. Ben, then in the fifth grade, and his elder brother, Curtis, in the seventh, both did poorly in school. For Ben, F's were the norm; mere D's were considered a victory. "He had no hope," recalls his mother. "He just felt there was no way out, and so why should he try? He was just really at the point of no return."

Sonya decided to take action. She cut her sons' television viewing to three shows a week and ordered them to read two books every week. Leaving nothing to chance, she also insisted they submit written book reports to her. It was a major bluff on her part; she had only a third-grade education and could barely read what they turned in. But she stayed on top of her sons. And slowly her plan began to work. "Once I discovered that between the pages of those books...we could go anywhere and we could meet anybody and we could do anything," Carson says, "that's when it really started to hit me."

By the time he entered predominantly white Wilson Junior High, he was at the top of his class. Kids who had once teased him and called him "dummy" now asked for his help on homework. But all was not well; Carson repeatedly ran into racial prejudice. On the way to school one day, he and Curtis were confronted by a group of boys armed with sticks. "You know, you nigger kids ain't supposed to be going to Wilson Junior High," one told them. "If we ever catch you again, we're going to kill you." After that, they took a different route to school. When they joined a neighborhood football league, a group of white adults warned them to stay away—and they did. Carson's most humiliating experience, though, was in the eighth grade. His teacher publicly berated his white classmates for allowing him, a black, to win an award for outstanding student.

Such incidents only heated up Carson's already red-hot temper. "I would just fly off the handle, and the only thing that was important to me, if somebody made me mad, was to make them unhappy," he says. "If that meant hitting them with a rock or a brick or a baseball bat, that's what I wanted to do." He opened a three-inch gash in the forehead of a schoolmate who teased him, using the padlock from his locker. He broke the nose of another boy with a rock. He almost punched out his own mother for buying him a pair of pants he didn't like, but he was stopped by Curtis in the nick of time. And once, during an argument, he unsuccessfully went after Curtis with a kitchen knife.

But the worst blowup took place when he was 14. One day after school, he and a friend were listening to a transistor radio. "He had changed a radio station and I didn't want it changed," Carson remembers. "He argued with me, and I grabbed this camping knife and tried to stab him. I was totally irrational. Fortunately, he had a large, metal belt buckle under his clothing, and the knife blade struck it and broke. He fled, and I ran home and locked myself in the bathroom and just started contemplating what would have happened if he had not had that belt buckle on."

After several hours in the bathroom, he decided to fall back on a deep belief in God (he is a Seventh-Day Adventist) and pray. As he explains in his 1990 autobiography, Gifted Hands, he walked out of the bathroom a changed person. He says that he has never had a problem with his temper again. "During those hours in the bathroom I came to realize that if people could make me angry, they could control me," he wrote. "Why should I give someone else such power over my life?"

Despite that cathartic experience, Carson still had another demon to conquer. His family had moved to a black Detroit neighborhood, and he found a new temptation: hanging out. Instead of studying, he spent his evenings playing basketball, sometimes until 11. His grades promptly dropped back to C's. "I started believing for a little while that academics weren't all that important," he says. "It was more important to be one of the guys."

Once again his mother stepped in. By this time she had learned to read better and would recite poems and proverbs about self-help. Eventually she got through. Carson went back to getting A's and, in 1969, graduated third in his class.

That fall he entered Yale on a scholarship. Four years later he pursued a love that began when he was 8 years old and heard a moving sermon in church about a doctor: He went to medical school. He also pursued a love that began the summer before his junior year and married fellow Yalie Candy Rustin. Today they live outside Baltimore with Sonya and their three sons (Murray, 8, Ben Jr., 6, and Rhoeyce, 4). Carson tries to spend as much time at home as possible. "I don't want my kids to grow up with no father like I did," he says. "I came to the conclusion a while ago that you can work until midnight and not be finished or you can work until 6 or 7 and not be finished. I decided I'd rather work until 6 or 7."

Carson is raising his sons according to the laws of Sonya: two books a week, plus reports. He knows her scheme works, he says. "A lot of the kids I grew up with are dead from drugs and violence." And he is promoting his cause with a new book, Think Big, and lots of speeches. His mission in life, he believes, is to help others—particularly blacks. "It doesn't matter if you come from the inner city. People who fail in life are people who find lots of excuses," he says. "It's never too late for a person to recognize that they have potential in themselves."

—J.T.; LINDA KRAMER in Baltimore

  • Contributors:
  • Linda Kramer.