Friday 16 November 2012

The Life of Norman Dott examined

This week, we delve a little deeper into the life of Professor Norman McOmish Dott (1897-1973) whose neurosurgical case notes are being catalogued by our Project Archivist, Louise, in a two year project funded by the Wellcome Trust. To better understand the case notes, Louise has been finding out about Norman Dott’s life…

Dott was born in Edinburgh in 1897 to art dealer Peter McOmish Dott and his wife, Rebecca, and was the third of five children. Norman showed considerable flair for design and engineering and was apprenticed to the local engineering firm of McTaggart Scott & Co after he left George Heriot’s School. However, a motorcycle accident in Lothian Road in 1913 (just outside what is now the HMV Picturehouse!) led to a leg injury and a spell in the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. Although the injury was to affect him for the rest of his life, Dott became fascinated by hospital life and entered the University of Edinburgh to study medicine, where he graduated M.D Ch.B. in 1919. 

Following impressive surgical appointments, teaching and research, Dott was awarded a Rockefeller Travelling Fellowship in 1923, spending a year with American neurosurgery pioneer Professor Harvey Williams Cushing (1869-1939) in Boston. In the same year (1923), he was made a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. The next stage in Dott’s career saw him become Honorary Surgeon at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children whilst at the same time working in private practice as a neurosurgeon. Dott used a nursing home in Edinburgh’s New Town for neurosurgery on private patients, to which he and his team had to transport their instruments by taxi or private car!

Dott worked throughout his life for neurosurgery to be recognised and funded as a medical specialism in Scotland. Finally, 1938 saw the first patients enter Scotland’s first dedicated neurosurgical ward, the Department of Surgical Neurology in Ward 20 of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, where Dott had been based since 1931. During the Second World War, Dott set up the Brain Injuries Unit in Bangour General Emergency Service Hospital in Broxburn, West Lothian. Working with two neurology teams to treat both civilian and service casualties, he was awarded a C.B.E for this work in 1948. 

Postcard of Norman Dott’s neurosurgical ward (Ward 32) in Bangour General Emergency Service Hospital during the Second World War (LHB44/26/6)
 Never giving up on his medical ambitions, Dott helped to establish the Department of Surgical Neurology at the Western General Hospital in 1960, taking a leading role in the design of operating theatres, notably including a reflector vaulted roof that avoided shadow falling on patient and surgeon. Dott spent only a brief time in the Western General before he retired in 1963. In the previous year, he was honoured as a Freeman of the City of Edinburgh and was made Emeritus Professor at the University of Edinburgh. He died in the city in December 1973 survived by his wife, Peggy, and only daughter, Jean.

Norman Dott was one of medicine’s remarkable characters, remembered for his generosity towards his patients, worn mackintosh coat, and high expectations of junior medical colleagues as much as for his many clinical achievements and tireless commitment to his specialism. The case notes that Dott left behind record his impressions of triumphs (and failures) as he performed pioneering intracranial surgeries in the 1920s and 1930s, tell the wartime stories of the service men and women who were treated by the neurological teams at Bangour, and document the sheer variety and volume of conditions treated in Ward 20 of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh.  As the research and development phase of our Norman Dott case note cataloguing project reaches its completion and cataloguing begins, these remarkable records are one step closer to becoming more accessible to researchers.


  1. My name is Terrance Ferri. Dr Norman Dott saved my life when I was only 14 years of age. (April 1959) I went through a brain operation and I survived, which I thank him for that. It was a rare operation of its time. I was taken around all the hospitals in the Lothians to show the success. ( I was in Ward 20, Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. )

  2. Dear Terrance

    It's lovely to hear from you! If you would like me to look to see if we still have a record of your time in hospital, I would be happy to do that.

    If so, would you mind emailing us ( or calling (0131 650 3392) so that we have a private contact for you?

    With best wishes

    Louise Williams
    LHSA Archivist

  3. Dr dott ) saved my life in 1947 ,I was just a young child but my parents told me full story from sick kids edinburgh. I am now in my 70's.

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  5. Dear James

    It's very good to hear from you! Norman Dott did work in the Sick Kids sometimes - funnily enough, so did his brother, Eric: We don't have much from the Sick Kids during your time there, but we may have register entries for you. If you'd like us to look into this, please contact us (0131 650 3392).