Obituary: Professor Nelson Norman, Consultant Surgeon and Pioneer in Telehealth Care


Nelson Norman meets a young penguin in Antarctica

Professor Nelson Norman was an academic surgeon in Glasgow and Aberdeen whose early medical career with national service began unexpectedly as a doctor at Halley Bay in Antarctica in 1959. This was before Antarctica became the current focus of climate change science and wildlife television. He researched critical care while training as a general surgeon, then refocused in Aberdeen on the new specialty of remote care in hostile environments. He established academic support for the new offshore oil and diving industry in Aberdeen at the University of Aberdeen and later at Robert Gordon University. He developed training and medical support for the British Antarctic Survey and was awarded the Polar Medal.

John Nelson Norman was born in Paisley in 1932. His father Alexander Norman was a customs and excise officer who survived the Battle of the Somme and his mother was Winifred. He attended Paisley Grammar and a burst appendix aged 12 gave him the idea for a career in surgery.

He graduated in medicine from the University of Glasgow in 1957 and after his domestic work at Victoria Infirmary began National Service in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He volunteered to serve as a medical officer in Halley Bay, Antarctica. He surveyed the sea ice, collected emperor penguin embryos for Sir Raymond Priestly, and conducted his own research into the physiology of cold for a medical thesis.

Dr Norman then returned to the University of Glasgow Department of Surgery under Sir Charles Illingworth, who was researching the use of hyperbaric oxygen in Glasgow for critical care, carbon monoxide poisoning carbon and treatment of caisson workers building the Clyde Tunnel. He completed his doctorate in critical care physiology and married his wife Morag in 1964. He completed his surgical training with fellowships at the Royal Colleges of Surgeons in Glasgow and Edinburgh in 1967. Despite three MDs, he has then followed the old surgical tradition and reverted to “Mister Nelson Norman”.

In 1970 Mr Norman was appointed Reader in Surgery at the University of Aberdeen and worked at Foresterhill as a consultant surgeon teaching medical and nursing students. He was an academic supervisor for many surgical researchers around the world in intensive care and obtained his fourth doctorate of science at the University of Aberdeen after submitting a large number of papers in surgical science in 1976.

During the 1970s the offshore oil and gas industry was centered in Aberdeen and there were accidents, illnesses and deaths due to the rush to push the boundaries of engineering and diving. An academic response was needed to understand cold exposure, diving medicine and remote health care support. Norman’s Antarctic experience, hyperbaric medicine and critical care physiology came together when he founded the Institute of Offshore and Environmental Medicine within the Department of Surgery at the University of Aberdeen. He engaged the oil industry for funding and created medical training and support companies to support the oil industry and fund research. Mr Norman, the surgeon, went on to become Professor of Environmental Medicine in 1976 at the University of Aberdeen.

Mountain hypothermia remained an interest and rewarming methods were debated in mountain rescue teams and A&E units. He set up the Morrone Laboratory on the mountain near Braemar for field research into hypothermia. The field station unit was from the Antarctic Survey, construction was carried out by the military and the Braemar Mountain Rescue Team. Researchers and projects were in place and it was opened by Prince Philip.

However, his department at the University of Aberdeen suffered from budget cuts in the 1980s. The strategic priority of the new head of the UK’s oldest medical school was to decide which departments to close to save money. money, rather than promoting activities that generate medical advances and jobs.

Occupational medicine has always been a Cinderella specialty outside the NHS and the choice was made to focus on research funded by the pharmaceutical industry rather than the local oil industry which was generating wealth and therefore poverty. health in the local community.

The Morrone Mountain Field Station was closed before any research was completed. Professor Nelson Norman has resigned from his post at the University of Aberdeen and Aberdeen Royal Infirmary has lost a talented academic consultant surgeon.

The closure of the Morrone field station remained his biggest regret and the low point of his career. 38 years later, remote healthcare and telemedicine have become key topics at NHS Scotland.

The new Robert Gordon University had always had a larger engineering department than its older sibling and was already involved in sea survival training.

Fortunately, his talents were recognized by Robert Gordon University and he decided to focus on distance medicine.

He worked with the University of Newfoundland, Canada, to develop their telecare systems.

He developed the medical training and support systems for doctors working in Antarctica and was an early advocate of remote telecare to support doctors, nurses and paramedics in hostile remote environments.

He was a professor of community medicine in the United Arab Emirates for 5 years and continued to support many young researchers.

He never “retired” from his passion for remote health care.

Professor Nelson Norman was a man ahead of his time who had been inspired by Antarctica and had a big vision for remote healthcare, which is now established in NHS policy. His proudest moment was receiving the Polar Medal in 1999.

John Nelson Norman’s wife, Morag, was his greatest support and predeceased him after 57 years together. He is survived by their daughter Sarah-Jane and their grandson Scott Mackie.

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