American Medical Biographies/Norris, George Washington

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Norris, George Washington (1808–1875)

George Washington Norris, eminent surgeon in pre-antiseptic days, authority on fractures, author of surgical papers, and a local medical historian, was the sixth son of Joseph Parker Norris and Elizabeth Hill Fox and was born November 6, 1808, in Philadelphia, in the house known as the "Chestnut Street House," built by his grandfather, Charles Norris, on the site where the Custom House now stands. His ancestors were English. The earliest known, Thomas Norris, London merchant in 1650, joined the Quakers and was driven by persecutions to seek a home in the Island of Jamaica. Here he and his entire family except an absent son, Isaac, were killed in the earthquake of 1692. Isaac, changing his home to Philadelphia, entered mercantile life, took active interest in all that concerned the colony, and was an elder in the Society of Friends; he was judge of the Court of Common Pleas, was the friend of William Penn and married a daughter of Thomas Lloyd, first deputy governor of the Province. He died in 1735, and his son, Isaac, became speaker of the Colonial Assembly 1751–64.

George W. Norris, as he was known, had his early education with the author and distinguished teacher James Ross, then entered the Academic Department of the University of Pennsylvania, graduating A. B. in 1827, after which he studied medicine under Joseph Parrish (q. v.); he took his M. D. from the University in 1830, offering a thesis on "Varioloid and Vaccine Diseases." Immediately after he was made a resident physician in the Pennsylvania Hospital, remaining until 1833, when he went to Paris and attended lectures of Dupuytren, Velpeau, Roux and Magendie. He was elected a member of the Société Médicale d'Observation. In 1835 he returned to Philadelphia and practised.

He succeeded John Rhea Barton (q. v.) as one of the surgeons in the Pennsylvania Hospital in 1836, serving until 1863; he was professor of clinical surgery in the University of Pennsylvania 1848–1857 when he resigned, having been elected a trustee of the University in 1856; he was consulting surgeon to the Orthopedic Hospital and to the Children's Hospital, and president of the board of managers of the latter.

He was member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, of the American Philosophical Society, and for many years a director of the Philadelphia Library. His tastes led him to historical research and, interested in the early history of Philadelphia, he gathered material for a book to be called "Medicine and the Early Medical Men of Philadelphia," and printed fifty pages on a hand press. These historical data were found among his effects and published by his son, William Fisher Norris (q. v.) in 1886 with the title "The Early History of Medicine in Philadelphia." "It is certainly the most interesting and valuable record of medical annals that has ever appeared in this country and the work is numbered by its fortunate possessors among their greatest treasures" (F. P. Henry).

Norris's first publication was "Dislocation and Fracture of the Astragalus" (Amer. Jour. Med. Sci., 1837, vol. xx, 378–383); other papers, particularly dealing with statistics of operations, appeared in the same journal; he collected the chief of these and published them in one volume, "Contributions to Practical Surgery," Philadelphia, 1873. Of this work Henry says, "Dr. Norris conferred a favor upon his surgical contemporaries, to whom he thus made readily accessible a series of observations that had previously been widely scattered." The paper on "The Occurrence of Non-Union after Fractures" is called by William Hunt "an exhaustive masterpiece," and by Frank Hastings Hamilton "the most complete and reliable monograph upon this subject contained in any language."

Norris was tall and imposing in appearance and had a low, well-modulated voice; it was said that "he never flattered and he never sneered." He was in frail health for years, having chronic pulmonary trouble, and in 1872 suffered an attack of prostatic and cystic abscess; on March 4, 1875, he died.

Dr. Norris married Mary Pleasants Fisher, daughter of William W. Fisher, in 1838; they had two children, William Fisher (q. v.), who became a physician, and Mary Fisher (Mrs. James Parsons).

Trans. Coll. Phys., Phila., 1876, 3 s., vol. ii, xvii–xlii, W. Hunt.
University of Pennsylvania, 1740–1900, J. L. Chamberlain.
History of the Pennsylvania Hospital, 1751–1895, T. G. Morton and F. Woodbury, Phila., 1895.
Standard History of the Medical Profession of Philadelphia, F. P. Henry, Chicago, 1897.