Dr. Clarence Sumner Greene: First Board Certified Black Neurosurgeon in the United States
Born on December 26, 1901, Dr. Clarence Sumner Greene, Sr. became the first board certified black neurosurgeon in the United States of America. When young Clarence was 10, his mother remarried and moved from Washington D.C. to New York City. After a brief stint in New York, Clarence fortuitously returned to D.C. where he lived with his Aunt. Her husband was a dentist and a gentleman who lived down the hall was a prominent black physician.
Clarence thrived in D.C., excelling academically and athletically, lettering in almost every sport. His classmates at Dunbar High School, who including a young Charles Drew, nicknamed him the Bronze Adonis.
Upon graduating from high school, Clarence followed in his uncle’s footsteps and studied dentistry. Dr. Greene graduated with a D.D.S. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1926, but the dream of medical school and neurosurgery nagged at him.
Greene enrolled in a pre-medical program at Harvard University from 1926-1927. In 1930, he interned at Cleveland City Hospital. Dr. Greene then returned to the University of Pennsylvania and earned a Bachelor of Arts in 1932.
Still unsatisfied, Dr. Greene finally enrolled at Howard Medical School where he graduated with a medical degree in 1936 at age 34. Dr. Greene completed 7 years of general surgery residency including a rotation under his old classmate, the inimitable Charles Drew. Dr. Greene then served 4 years as a professor of surgery at Howard University but that was still not enough.
Without saying, there was no neurosurgery program at the all black Howard medical school. However, discrimination lead to good fortune because Dr. Greene traveled to Canada in 1946 where he had the opportunity to train under the legendary Dr. Wilder Penfield at the Montreal Neurological Institute, an organization largely funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.
With high praise from Dr. Penfield, Clarence Sumner Greene became the first individual of African descent certified by the American Board of Neurological Surgery on October 22, 1953. Dr. Greene then served as Chair of Neurosurgery at Howard, where he successfully conducted numerous brain surgeries until his untimely passing in 1957 at the age of 56. As physically fit as a man can be, perhaps it was the stress of the journey lead to sudden heart failure.
A true pioneer, Dr. Greene’s achievements opened the door for subsequent African-Americans to enhance the field of neurosurgery. Today, some of the nation’s leading neurosurgeons are African American. Dr. Greene’s own son, Clarence Sumner Greene, Jr., is himself a renowned pediatric neurosurgeon who happened to serve as flight surgeon to Vice President Rockefeller on Air Force II. What goes around, comes around. The younger Dr. Greene’s daughter did not follow in their footsteps (except for similarly dedicating her life to those in need). She spends her time fighting for justice with the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office. I have the good fortune to be married to her.
*** And now, buried at the bottom of the article, is my embarrassing tale.***
One day, as my wife and I were walking into Cedar Sinai Hospital, we saw a black doctor walking out toward the parking lot and asked him for directions. The physician uncharacteristically reversed course and personally escorted us through the hospital to our destination. I had no idea who this man was, so while riding the elevator and with my obvious habit of passing unsolicited black history trivia to whomever will listen, I arrogantly asked him if he was aware that one Dr. Clarence Sumner Greene was the first board certified black neurosurgeon in the United States. He replied that he did, and that, in fact, a portrait of Dr. Greene hangs in his office. He intimated that he wouldn’t be our personal guide otherwise.
I later learned the man’s name was Keith Black, arguably the preeminent neurosurgeon in the United States. You see when we first encountered Dr. Black, my observant wife noticed his name tag and elegantly introduced herself to him, mentioning the name of her father. Her grandfather's good will induced the leading neurosurgeon in the country to stop what he was doing and personally escort, with pride, Dr. Greene's lost granddaughter to her destination, which if you know Cedars, took forever.
So there you have it, Dr. Clarence Greene, Sr., my grandfather-in-law. He is pretty high among the many reasons why I am so proud to be a Morgan – GREENE. Hey, does anyone know how to do a Wikipedia page? The world needs this man to have a Wikipedia page. Feel free to leave out, with my humblest apologies, that lovable cuckoo bird, Dr. Ben Carson. Thanks!
Oh and if you are interested, the Smithsonian has wonderful photographs of Dr. Greene in surgery and at home available here: http://collections.si.edu/search/results.htm?view=&dsort=&date.slider=&q=dr.+clarence+greene+scurlock%22
PS. Over many years my sweet Poppa, white man and medical geek, began to understand that much of black family lore, at least in my mother’s family, is just that, lore. So when my wife first told him that her grandfather was the first board certified black neurosurgeon in the U.S., he took it with a grain of salt. When I saw him for lunch the following week, he looked like a kid in a candy store. He said, “Do you know that is actually true? I looked it up! Incredible!” The cutest.
Also, while my Dad was dying, he expressed concerned about the lack of a meaningful relationship with our boys. (At the time, I was pregnant with them). I asked him what he thought about the relationship between Kim and her grandfather. He said he thought it was strong, that she spoke of him often, he obviously had a huge, positive impact on her life and that she had a strong working knowledge of his life. "Do you know she never knew him?" I asked. "She didn't?" he marveled. "No sir," I confirmed. He thought about it for a minute. "Well that helps a lot" he said, "thanks."
They'll know you good Poppa, don't you worry.
Thanks for all the lessons Dr. Greene.