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A Just Cause
The tenacity of two men has paid off in an honor for famed pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

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Ben Carson was the 11th African-American in the United States to be board-certified in neurosurgery. Ernie Bates, right, was the second.

Four years ago, Henry Brem shared with Johns Hopkins University trustee Ernie Bates his frustrations over a project that had been stalled since he took over the neurosurgery department in 2000.

“I said to Ernie that we really should have an endowed professorship at Hopkins to honor Ben Carson,” Brem recalls. He’d been told that it would be easy to create one  for Hopkins’ renowned head of pediatric neurosurgery for the past 24 years would be easy. But after the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the ensuing economic downturn, Brem confessed to the trustee that “it just wasn’t happening.”

Bates held a deep admiration for Carson, who gained worldwide fame in 1987 after completing the first separation of conjoined twins attached at the back of the head. The two also had a common background as neurosurgeons: Bates was the second African-American in the United States to be board-certified in the specialty, and Carson was the 11th.

Bates quickly volunteered to spearhead the effort to raise funds for the endowed professorship, an endeavor that culminated May 29 at a celebration marking the $2.5 million endowment.

“Ben Carson has been an inspiration for me and to a lot of young African-Americans,” says Bates. “He is the top pediatric neurosurgeon in the country, if not the world. He’s just spectacular. I want him to use the endowment funds to go beyond what he already has done.”

Bates, a successful businessman, founded and runs a company that leases gamma knife and other radiosurgery equipment to hospitals. For over 50 years, he has remained fiercely loyal to Hopkins, although his experiences weren’t always positive.

In 1958, Bates was the first African-American to receive a diploma from Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences—“a wonderful undergraduate experience,” he recalls. “As long as I can remember, I wanted to be a doctor and I wanted to go to Hopkins because of its superb medical school.”

But that dream ended after he learned the hospital’s wards were still segregated.

“I withdrew my application,” he recalls. “I just couldn’t overcome my moral objections.”

Instead, Bates received his medical degree from the University of Rochester and his neurosurgical training at the University of California, San Francisco. Yet he doesn’t dwell on his brush with segregation at Hopkins. “It’s all history now,” he says. “Today, Hopkins’ medical leadership is diverse and encourages diversity in the faculty and student body.”

Bates served as vice chair of the University trustees, where he now has emeritus status. He also sits on Johns Hopkins Medicine’s board of visitors.

Like many savvy fund-raisers, Bates’ first step was to write a large check himself and another from his company, American Shared Hospital Services. He wrote letters and contacted a raft of potential donors by phone. He got a large gift from Star Wars producer George Lucas and one from an anonymous donor who had served with Bates as a trustee.

Still, the drive was short $1 million of the $2.5 million needed to establish a permanent professorship for Carson and all future directors of pediatric neurosurgery. Then a retired Oppenheimer Funds chief executive and his wife, Don and Evelyn Spiro, stepped in. Neither had met Carson until Don Spiro sat next to him at a development dinner in West Palm Beach, Fla. “I liked what I heard,” Don Spiro recalls. “Everything he said was so unselfish. I came away thinking, I want to be on his team.”

Evelyn Spiro only knew Carson through his bestselling autobiography, Gifted Hands, which she picked up at the Hospital gift shop one day. “I was amazed,” she says. “As an operating room nurse, I worked with surgeons who screamed and yelled, who had ego problems and had to be the center of attention. Dr. Carson is totally different. He’s very quiet. You can tell from his book he’s very humble.”

So when development officials suggested a large donation to complete the endowment, the Spiros eagerly agreed. The professorship is named for both Carson and Evelyn Spiro.

“Ernie Bates played a huge role in getting the fund-raising on track,” notes Andy Dunsmore, director of development for neurosurgery, “and the Spiros took us over the top.”

Carson calls the endowed professorship the greatest honor he could have. “I am deeply touched Ernie Bates took it upon himself to spearhead this project and that the Spiros would make such a generous gift,” Carson says.

Funds from the endowment will support cutting-edge research and clinical procedures by the director of pediatric neurosurgery in perpetuity. “We feel the professorship is going to result in a big payoff for society,” says Don Spiro. “I don’t want to sound corny, but it’s true.” 


—Barry Rascovar

 

 

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