An elite neurosurgeon born in crushing poverty, Benjamin Carson, M.D., told the Class of 2007 how learning transformed his life and urged the graduates to use their education to transform society.

Carson, selected by the graduating class of 86 new physicians as their Commencement speaker, is director of the Division of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center and a former fellow of the Yale Corporation. He performed the first successful separation of twins joined at the back of the head and has written several popular books, including his autobiography, Gifted Hands. Carson shared some of that life story, beginning with his humble origins and continuing through his education at Yale College and eventual rise to a position of prominence in medicine.

Carson was a badly behaved, low-achieving elementary school student until his mother, who had only a third-grade education, began assigning him twice-weekly book reports. Her strategy worked, and Carson became an excellent student, only to backslide in high school because of peer pressure. “Peers, that’s Persons who Engage in Errors, Rudeness and Stupidity,” he joked. His mother quickly got him back on track.

Carson credited the struggles of his childhood in inner-city Detroit for his perseverance. “It puts fire in your belly. Hardship is a good thing,” he said.

He now has CEOs and royalty come from around the world for consultations. “Every single one of them would have gladly given every title and every penny for a clean bill of health,” he said. The physician’s power to restore health is cause for humility, not pride, he continued. “It doesn’t make us special, but it makes us incredibly privileged.”

Carson’s success spurred him to create the Carson Scholars Fund with his wife, Candy. The nonprofit organization gives cash awards and development opportunities to outstanding students in grades 4 through 11, with scholarships awarded for attendance at four-year colleges and universities upon the students’ graduation from high school.

Society is plagued by problems that “we in the medical profession have some of the tools to solve because we are the most highly educated people in society,” Carson said. He urged the class to be active in their own communities and to be a voice on such national issues as the 47 million Americans living without health insurance. “How can we abide that?” he asked.

Several faculty members received teaching prizes at the ceremony. The Bohmfalk Teaching Prize went to Fred Gorelick, M.D., professor of medicine and cell biology, for basic science teaching, and to Jessica L. Illuzzi, M.D., assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences, for clinical teaching. The Leah M. Lowenstein Award was given to Vincent J. Quagliarello, M.D., professor of medicine, and to Karen Santucci, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics. Hal Blumenfeld, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of neurology, neurobiology and neurosurgery, received the Francis Gilman Blake Award. Damani Piggott, M.D., Ph.D. ’03, HS, received the Betsy Winters House Staff Award. The Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award was given to Majid Sadigh, M.D., associate professor of medicine. Leo M. Cooney Jr., M.D., the Humana Foundation Professor of Geriatric Medicine, received the Alvan R. Feinstein Award for outstanding teaching of clinical skills.

The class gift will be split between the Society of Distinguished Teachers, a program that supports excellence in the school’s teaching mission, and beautification of the patio outside Marigold’s, the medical school’s cafeteria.