Although he eventually became a role model to many, the story of Dr Earl Carlson has extremely humble and difficult origins. These experiences became the foundation for his work to change the way society viewed and treated people with a disability.
Nothing about Earl’s life was easy or straightforward. He came into this world under tough circumstances – during a blizzard, with a doctor who ran late and a difficult forceps delivery, which he believed contributed to his cerebral palsy.
In those days, cerebral palsy was called spasticity, which we now know is the most common form. Most families would hide their child away. By the time Earl Carlson grew up and made his way in the world, the landscape for children with cerebral palsy would be very different.
But where did it start?
Earl Carlson’s mother was a strong-willed and firm woman who insisted that her son attend public school, just like any other child his age. It was undeniably a battle, but she won it. And she won fight after fight with an equally strong-willed Earl to get him to actually attend.
Earl’s life took a dramatic turn when his mother’s support, courage and determination ended in 1918, following her death from influenza.
He found himself left with his father who he said was aggressive, depressed and alcoholic, who often threatened to beat him because of his disability. One year after his mother’s death, his father died. Earl was 22 and alone.
University and a career
But he had already started to build his resilience. Earl had been at Princeton University for three years and was establishing a career as a librarian.
“I shall never forget the thrill that my first week’s pay gave me. I felt that I could rub shoulders with the world now, since I could earn my own living,” – Dr Earl Carlson (Born That Way)
Good guidance from his good friend Bud Stillman during their time at university lead to Earl taking the plunge and following his love of biology all the way to medical school.
By the time Earl actually started practising medicine, he had studied at the University of Minnesota, Macalaster College, Princeton and Yale. It was at Yale he eventually obtained his medical degree.
Going to medical school
Getting into medical school was a serious challenge in its own right. Because of his cerebral palsy, Earl suffered serious discrimination and substantial rejection from a number of medical schools before finally being accepted at the prestigious Yale. Earl was also extremely poor and often wondered how he would pay for his qualifications, even if he was accepted.
Luckily, many kind and generous people offered emotional and financial support through Earl’s life. These influencers ranged from a friend of his mothers, to newspaper man Herschel Jones, to University of Minnesota Librarian Professor Gerould, various lecturers, and one of his many physicians, Dr Frederick Tilney.
But then, there was the Stillman family. They were his best friends, surrogate family and most generous benefactors. Earl’s friendship with Bud Stillman developed while they studied together at Princeton.
However, it was the entire Stillman family that took him into their hearts and homes, making him one of their own. It had a mighty humbling impact on a young Earl Carlson.
They wanted him to enjoy himself, be comfortable and not have to worry about his living and tuition expenses. Subsequently, they funded his final years in medical school and potentially contributed to a changed future for those people living with cerebral palsy.
Another enormous influence in Earl’s life was New York Neurologist, Dr Frederick Tilney.
He had been one of Earl’s doctors while he was at Princeton. Impressed by what Earl had managed to achieve on his own, he took an interest in his career advancement, encouraging him to stay in touch.
While he was at Yale, Earl decided to write to his old acquaintance. It was a fortunate move.
When Dr Tilney discovered the training Earl had been doing, he gave him an amazing opportunity to work with people with cerebral palsy at the Neurological Institute in New York.
Earl writes in his autobiography:
“This offer of Dr Tilney’s was enough to sway the scale of my fortunes. I had now passed all the requirements for admission to clinical work at Yale, but the authorities of the medical school were somewhat doubtful about letting me go on, since they felt that my physical handicaps would bar me from practice and would even prevent my getting hospital training after graduation. Dr Tilney’s offer helped to eliminate their objections, and I was accepted as a regular student for the degree.”
Dr Tilney’s generosity did not end there. When Earl finally finished his degree, Dr Tilney offered him an internship in New York.
It would be this series of moves alongside Dr Tilney that would lead to Earl’s profound realisation that the ‘disorders of the spastic’ needed to be looked at in terms of the brain’s structural development rather than as a muscular handicap. He would devote the rest of his life to research on the matter.
Dr Earl Carlson went on from this internship and other tremendous endeavours to establish clinics of his own alongside his wife, Isle Schneider, a nurse.
In these clinics, Dr Carlson leveraged not only his medical knowledge, but his own experiences in overcoming cerebral palsy.
Throughout his life, he had repeatedly endured lessons that taught him the power of self-discipline in eliminating fear and anxiety to regain control of his muscles.
In turn, he took this into his clinics which offered the standard occupational and physical therapy available elsewhere, but also placed a unique emphasis on discipline as a means of eliminating fear and anxiety and gaining muscle control.
Dr Carlson wrote:
“Only through education [does a child with cerebral palsy] have a chance of becoming socially useful instead of a burden on society.”
All the children that came through his clinics would learn this discipline, to focus on the purpose, not the method of muscular action.
Dr Carlson deeply believed that the brain of a person with cerebral palsy was a switchboard of tangled wires and that the right connections could only be made through the patient’s own will, determination and practice of muscular control.
While for many years, he had been told he was working towards something that could never eventuate, the clinic model he developed would eventually go to influence practice all around the world, including in Australia and New Zealand.
He had done it
He had helped children with cerebral palsy from around the world in ways no-one ever thought possible.
He had given them an education.
Proven they could obtain work.
Highlighted their value to society.
Most of all he had brought these children out from the shadows and given them back their lives.
“EVERY human life has its purpose, and even the most hopelessly handicapped can be useful to society.” – Dr Earl Carlson (Born That Way)
Find out more
If you’re interested in more details of Dr Earl R. Carlson’s life, or if you have any doubt in your own ability, Earl’s autobiography Born That Way is an inspiring must-read.
The history of the American Academy of Cerebral Palsy and Developmental Medicine can be found at www.aacpdm.org/about/history