Friday, 26 August 2016

Happy Birthday Professor Dott!

     Today would have been the birthday of the great neurosurgeon Norman Dott, born exactly 119 years ago on the 26th of August 1897 in Colinton, near Edinburgh. His work was crucial to the development of neurosurgery in Scotland; indeed he devised many advanced diagnosis techniques and performed pioneering surgical procedures. Plenty of examples can be found in the c. 28,000 case notes being catalogued under the project “Cataloguing Norman Dott's neurosurgical case notes (1920-1960)” – read more about the advancement of the project here. His collection contains a wealth of fascinating case summaries, drawings and photographs; however on this occasion I would like to present the man himself. We already have written about his life, but this article will try to give a glimpse of the man’s admirable character, especially in his relationship with his patients.   

Photograph of Norman Dott. (PR1.1536)

     Norman Dott was a very well-known and appreciated figure in his city. His colleagues recognised the excellence of his work and his patients were proud to have been treated by him. He would often leave a lasting impression on people, and when a biography was tentatively mooted 15 years after his death, countless letters and phone calls from people who had met him in person poured in. Some of the features that stand out the most are his kindness towards his patients and his sincere interest in them. It is clear when one reads his case notes that Norman Dott really sought to know his patients, their work, their family, their fears and their aspirations. He would take the time to explain to them the nature of their conditions, the treatments available to them, or what they could expect in the future. We can quote here the letter of a father who had arranged for his son, who suffered from a ‘slow mental development’, to be seen by Dott through a common friend: 

      ‘Mrs … and I do… deeply appreciate the courtesy and kindness you have shown us in reading and commenting on my notes in spite of the informal manner of the approach to you, for this matter … is naturally one of the gravest anxiety to us’;

     ‘Again with many thanks for your kindly interest which in itself has been of considerable comfort to us’.

     The parents of this little boy were far from the only ones to express their gratitude to Norman Dott: indeed, it is not rare at all to find in the case notes letters sent by the patients to thank him, postcards greeting him for Christmas or New Year’s Eve, or even photographs of themselves or their child in good health after having been treated by him…Some patients would sometimes keep contact for many years. Norman Dott would always find time in his very busy schedule to personally reply to each of them, with kind words and a personalised attention.

Some photographs in Norman Dott case notes are more lighthearted than others...This child was seen by Dott in the late 30s. (PR4.14380)

A New Year card sent by a patient to thank Norman Dott for his care, with a wee poem! (PR2.1968)

     The correspondence and comments found in the case notes depict a man of great talent and of great compassion, determined to fight disease and always concerned for his patients’ well-being on the short and long term. Even when a treatment was unsuccessful, he wasn’t discouraged and always tried to learn from failure. In a letter relating to the case of a man suffering from a malignant astrocytoma who died despite having undergone an operation, he writes: ‘We shall continue to fight the disease that took him away. At present we cannot cure it: but I have lived long enough to see many diseases that appeared irremediable 10 and 20 years ago come with the score of cure. We shall not forget [name of the patient] nor his malady’. (PR4.19968)

Norman Dott was no doubt a remarkable man, both for his talent as a surgeon and for his humanity and kindness. Happy Birthday Mr Dott!


Rush, C., and Shaw, J. (1990) With Sharp Compassion, Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, p.176-216.

LHSA collection, LHB1/CC24/PR.2 and LHB1/CC22/CC4 

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