Science Service, Up Close: John Clavon Norman, Jr. – Pathbreaking Cardiac Surgeon and Researcher

The remarkable career of cardiac surgeon and researcher John Clavon Norman, Jr., M.D. (1930-2014) began in West Virginia with the examples set by his parents.

John Clavon Norman, Jr., M.D. (1930-2014) When Harvard Medical School distributed these photographs of John Clavon Norman, Jr., M.D. (1930-2014) to news services in the 1960s, Dr. Norman was at an exciting stage of his career. The young physician had already made quite a journey, but there would be even more paths to blaze. He had been born in West Virginia to parents who instilled in him a love of learning, a drive for achievement, and a commitment to community service. His research and surgery would eventually help extend the lives of uncounted numbers of cardiac patients around the world.

Raised by his grandmother in North Carolina, John Clavon Norman, Sr. (1892-1967) had attended North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State Institute and served in the U.S. Army Cavalry Engineers during World War I. After the war, he studied architecture and structural engineering at Carnegie Technical Institute in Pittsburgh, and then moved to West Virginia in 1919. He set up a successful architectural practice, taught part-time at the state college (now West Virginia State University), designed and oversaw building construction, and met and married Ruth Lydia Stephenson Norman (1868-1990), a local schoolteacher. John Clavon Norman, Sr., eventually became West Virginia’s first licensed African-American architect and the Normans were active in educational, church, and civic affairs. In 1975, Ruth Norman was named West Virginia Mother of the Year.

Their only child, John, Jr., extended this example of professional achievement. He was valedictorian of his high school class and entered Howard University (his mother’s alma mater) at age 16. He transferred to Harvard College, graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1950 and earning an M.D. from Harvard Medical School in 1954. At that time, few African-Americans were admitted to predominantly white medical schools like Harvard. Years later, Norman would explain that he always felt he “had to be a pathfinder. And once you train yourself to run, you keep running.”

After internship and residency at New York’s Presbyterian Medical Center and Bellevue Hospital, Norman joined the U.S. Navy, serving on the aircraft carrier Saratoga and attaining the rank of lieutenant commander. Then he returned to civilian life, completed cardiac surgical training at the University of Michigan, and spent a year at the University of Birmingham in England for additional research work. By 1964, he had been appointed associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and was also on the Boston City Hospital surgical staff, engaged in various research projects involving organ transplants. But the young physician also heeded his parents’ lessons about community engagement. His article “Medicine in the Ghetto,” published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine (December 4, 1969), and his organization of conferences in Boston and other urban areas, attempted to mobilize the medical establishment to address undeniable inequities in health care delivery.

John Clavon Norman, Jr., M.D. (1930-2014) Norman’s research was at the forefront of one of medicine’s most exciting areas, the development of assistive devices, such as “artificial hearts,” designed to keep patients alive between or during surgeries. In 1972, he moved to a major center for such research, the Texas Heart Institute (THI) in Houston. In a 2014 memorial tribute, heart surgeon Denton A. Cooley recalled his first meeting with the young surgeon, as they returned from a medical conference abroad: “On the airplane, the two of us happened to sit next to each other. Being familiar with his work, I told him about my eagerness to develop a research laboratory. We talked for several hours, and I decided that I needed this brilliant mind. I asked if he would be interested in creating, designing, and staffing a laboratory at THI.” Norman agreed to move to Texas, where he established the Cullen Cardiovascular Surgical Research Laboratories and became a clinical professor of surgery at the University of Texas. Cooley later praised John Norman as “a brilliant thinker, researcher, writer” and “an excellent mentor and teacher,” as a “complex” and hardworking physician who could also be “exceptionally charming and witty.”

Over the course of the next decade, Cooley and Norman made significant advances in the development and implantation of mechanical devices for cardiac assistance or replacement. At Texas, Norman continued his intense productivity (he eventually authored more than 500 scientific papers and eight books) and served as first editor-in-chief of Cardiovascular Diseases: Bulletin of the Texas Heart Institute.

Norman later joined the staff of Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in New Jersey, and became professor of clinical cardiothoracic surgery at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. In 1986, he returned to West Virginia to head the surgery department at Marshall University School of Medicine. Toward the end of his career, he was director of clinical investigations at Whalen Biomedical, Inc., a Massachusetts research and development company.

Two years after Dr. Norman’s death on August 23, 2014, a portion of a street in downtown Charleston, West Virginia, was renamed John Norman Street. It was a fitting tribute that joined the pathbreaking accomplishments of both father and son, and recognized the family’s extraordinary legacy.

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