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Artificial heart pioneer Dr. John C. Norman Jr. dead at 84

Dr. John C. Norman Jr. was born and raised in Charleston.

Dr. John Clavon Norman Jr., a Charleston-born, Harvard-educated cardiovascular surgeon and artificial heart pioneer, died Saturday in a Bedford, Massachusetts, acute-care facility. He was 84.

The son of Charleston architect and structural engineer John C. Norman Sr. and Ruth Stephenson Norman, who taught high school English classes in Kanawha County public schools for 53 years, Norman was valedictorian of Garnet High School’s class of 1946, and entered Howard University in Washington, D.C., at age 16. Norman transferred from Howard to Harvard University, where he graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1950. He then enrolled in Harvard’s medical school and, after earning his M.D. degree, spent 1957 and 1958 on active duty with the U.S. Navy, where he served as ship’s surgeon aboard the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, and attained the rank of lieutenant commander.

Following internship and residency at Presbyterian Medical Center and Bellevue Hospital in New York, he completed his cardiac surgical training at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

In 1962, Norman was a National Institutes of Health fellow at England’s University of Birmingham and, in 1964, he joined the surgical staff at Boston City Hospital while serving as an associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School.

While in Boston, Norman took part in several organ transplant research projects, including the successful transplant of a spleen from a healthy dog into a hemophiliac beagle (both dogs survived the procedure), and using the liver of a pig to keep a woman with liver failure alive for 18 days. In 1972, Norman left Harvard to establish the Cardiovascular Surgical Research Laboratories, at the prestigious Texas Heart Institute, and worked on the development and eventual use of a partial artificial heart designed to keep patients in cardiac failure alive while awaiting transplants.

Norman also researched possible energy sources for artificial hearts, including plutonium-powered versions. While in Texas, he was a professor of surgery at the University of Texas at Houston and San Antonio, and founded and edited the Texas Heart Institute Journal.

Norman later worked as a surgeon at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in New Jersey, and was a professor of clinical cardiothoracic surgery at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. He returned to West Virginia in 1986 to chair the surgery department at the Marshall University School of Medicine. He left that post in 1989 to become senior scholar-in-residence at Humana Hospital Audubon, in Louisville, Kentucky, and at Michael Reese Hospital, in Chicago, before returning to the Boston area.

Norman wrote 14 medical texts and more than 700 articles dealing with his research and clinical activities.

He was a Nieman Foundation lecturer at Harvard and served as a consultant to the National Institutes of Health’s medical science grants review committee and the National Science Foundation’s grants review section. He testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the adequacy of funding for the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, and was a recipient of the Congressional Award for Science and Technology, in 1985. Norman was a former board member of the Henry Highland Garnet Foundation, in Charleston.

In 1971, he was named the Sunday Gazette-Mail’s West Virginian of the Year. At that point, he was asked what he would like engraved on his tombstone. “Surgeon, I think,” he replied. “Yeah, surgeon . . . and may be a little something else.”

Norman’s survivors include his wife, Dr. Doris S. Norman, of Concord, Massachusetts, daughter and son-in-law Jill Caryn Norman and Sam Fouad, of New Canaan, Connecticut, and grandchildren Mickaela and Noah Fouad.

A memorial service will take place at 1 p.m. on Sept. 6 in First Baptist Church in Charleston.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

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