Black History Month Spotlight: Dr. John C. Norman  

During a time when many avenues were closed to him because of his race, Dr. Norman, a self-proclaimed workaholic and perpetual overachiever, became an associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School in his early 30s. Previously, he had earned his bachelor’s degree at Howard (matriculating at the age of 16) and his M.D. from Harvard, then gained even more experience in New York City, the US Navy, Michigan, and England. 

Dr. Cooley met Dr. Norman on an airplane from Moscow to Paris. By the time they had landed, Cooley had invited Norman to join him in Houston. Norman accepted the directorship of the research programestablishing the Cullen Cardiovascular Surgical Research Laboratories in 1972He also founded the THI Journal and was its first editor-in-chief. 

Dr. Norman was known globally for his pioneering work on the first LVAD used as a bridge to transplantation and locally for his Great Dane, Yonnie, who frequently stayed with him in his office. 

He once told a reporter: “I had to be a pathfinder. And once you train yourself to run, you keep running. 

 Learn more about his life and contributions to cardiac surgery from Dr. Cooley and from the American College of Surgeons.  #BlackHistoryMonth 


THI Today, October 1979, page 3

Personality Profile – JOHN C. NORMAN

His voice is barely audible on the tape, because of the stereo background during the course of the interview. But his personality comes through loud and clear. He’s a loner. He’s a workaholic. He’s close to very few people.

My mind went back to my first interview with this man, a year earlier. As is customary for first time interviews with a new source, I had briefed myself with the areas that we would be discussing – the ALVAD, the brand-new E-Type ALVAD, the Bulletin.

Of course. I had also picked up some tips on the enigmatic surgeon with whom I would be dealing. He lived in the hospital, I was told. He may or may not give me a hard time, depending on his mood. He definitely was moody. He would expect me to know my stuff. These clues told me everything, and nothing, about the man. I was intrigued.

I arrived for my interview at 2 00 sharp on a Sunday afternoon. Dr. Norman had agreed to an interview with the stipulation that it be arranged on Sunday afternoon. That was OK by me. As a reporter. I learned long ago that you must often be prepared to meet your source on his own grounds. This generally turns out for the better, as your source is usually much more willing to contribute information. Otherwise, it can be very much like pulling teeth, or maybe I should say, doing heart surgery.

At any rate, I arrived, feeling relatively prepared. Because it was Sunday, there was no one to greet me in the outer office. So, I took a deep breath and walked on back into what had to be Dr. Norman’s office. The lights were dim, the stereo was on and Dr. Norman looked up at me over a mountain of papers. He stood. extended his hand, and I felt my own hand clasped in one of the surest grips it has ever felt. I like him instantly.

He reached for a piece of fruit in an oversized basket at one end of his desk, made an offer for me to do the same, and motioned for me to sit down. His manner was somewhat distant, yet friendly. He was obviously in a good mood. I began my questions: he answered expertly. And I was suddenly very conscious of a huge Great Dane leaning against my chair.

I had not noticed her curled up on the sofa napping when I had walked in the door. But now she made her presence known. This beautiful Harlequin Great Dane, which I soon discovered was not only Dr. Norman’s pride and joy, but his best friend in all the world was awake and ready to play. Her name was Yonnie. It all seemed somehow natural, even though my resources had neglected to clue me in on Yonnie prior to this interview. I grew fond of seeing Yonnie on later trips to the Laboratories.

During my most recent interview with Dr. Norman, I thought it would be somewhat of a challenge to find out a little more about the man behind the researcher/surgeon. Hence the dialogue prefacing this personality sketch. We get a very clear picture of the man — sometimes called eccentric, sometimes called a snob, sometimes called a hermit — in just a few tape-recorded lines.

Incidentally, Yonnie is rumored to have been banned from the lnstitute, because…well. everyone has a different story. Regardless of the reason, she is now living on a farm with friends of Dr. Norman. He really does miss her. After all, she was the only person he really spoke to. At least that is what he would like people to think.

Actually, anyone who has had the privilege of meeting this highly skilled man cannot help but respect him – for his extreme interest in the advancement of cardiovascular research, and his total dedication to his work.