A rare Black orthopedic surgeon in an overwhelmingly white specialty, Eric Carson has spent decades mentoring Black and Hispanic students hoping to enter his field. But there was one story surgeon Eric Carson had never shared.
It happened when he was a trainee at Harvard, a pinnacle position he had reached after a tough childhood growing up in public housing in the nearby Roxbury neighborhood of Boston and enduring tense years during the city’s court-ordered school desegregation. He’d beaten the odds that claimed the futures of many he’d grown up with and made it to Tufts University as a scholar-athlete. He’d then entered medical school at the University of Illinois College of Medicine.
But orthopedics still seemed out of reach. Carson said the medical school faculty discouraged him from trying to enter the competitive field. Despite the lack of support, Carson was selected for a prized residency slot in orthopedics at Harvard to train with his idol Augustus White III, a Black physician who had overcome numerous barriers to become a leader in orthopedics at both Yale and then Harvard. Carson had even had a poster of White taped to the wall of his childhood bedroom.
In late October 1989, Carson was walking to work at Massachusetts General Hospital when he was detained by police who were sweeping the area looking for the killer of Carol Stuart. She had been killed by her husband, Charles, who had falsely told police that she was attacked by a Black assailant. Despite his white coat, scrubs, stethoscope, and Harvard ID, Carson was forced to the ground, at gunpoint. Once released, he went straight to the hospital, worried mainly about being late for morning rounds, and said not a word about what he’d just experienced.
He finally shared the experience, in the wake of the pandemic and the police murder of George Floyd, in an open letter to colleagues in June 2020.
“After I wrote about that, my phone was just blowing up,” Carson said. “People were saying, ‘I had no idea you experienced that.’ I said, ‘Well, you never asked.’” And it wasn’t the first time he’d been held at gunpoint by police.
Another experience at Harvard, though, was far more pleasant. Carson was able to operate with his mother, who had been able to become an orthopedic nurse at Mass. General even as she raised her four children as a single mother. He often credits her with the success he has achieved today.
Carson, now a professor of orthopedic surgery at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, heads the J. Robert Gladden Orthopaedic Society, which seeks to diversify the field. He continues to mentor and support students from groups underrepresented in medicine who hope to enter his field, and now speaks openly about his terrifying encounter with the police.
This is part of a series of articles exploring racism in health and medicine that is funded by a grant from the Commonwealth Fund.
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