Daughter publishes book by pioneering physician father decades after his death

NAVAL GAZING: The late Dr. Charles S. Norburn served as a surgeon during World War I on hospital and transport ships. He settled in Asheville in 1923, after he left the Navy, and opened a hospital, whose property eventually became the site of Mission Hospital. Photo courtesy of Lillian Norburn Alexander

For most people, Dr. Charles S. Norburn‘s name may have been a footnote in history, if it was known at all. Yet his contributions to the region’s health care industry are considerable thanks to his 1946 purchase of 32 acres of property at 509 Biltmore Ave., which became the site of the Norburn Hospital & Clinic. Today, that land is a small part of the compound on which Mission Hospital now resides.

Norburn left behind more than a historical legacy; he was also a passionate writer. Thirty years after his death in 1990, Lillian Norburn Alexander, the second of Norburn’s four children, took 30 stories he had written and compiled them into a book. She self-published The Cry in the Night: Dramas From the Life of a Doctor in September 2022.

Alexander recalls her father writing stories throughout her life. When Norburn retired in the mid-1950s, he spent hours reviewing and scribbling notes on these works. “He would revise and revise and revise,” Alexander recalls. “Then he gave them to me because he wanted them published in a book, and he thought I was the only one of his children who could do it.”

Norburn was right about that. However, it took a pandemic to push his daughter to take on the project. “I was very busy doing other things and never got around to doing anything with them until COVID hit and I was sitting at home looking for something to do,” she says.

Alexander says that since The Cry in the Night became available in print and as an ebook, it has been purchased across the United States, in France, Australia, England and one copy in Poland.

“After spending so much time with those stories, I wasn’t sure anyone would want to read them, so I’m very pleased,” Alexander says. “The comment I have heard most often is, ‘I wish I had known him.’ Working on the book made me feel so close to my father and proud to accomplish what he wished.”

A wonderful life

Born in 1890 in Thomasville, Norburn attended University of North Carolina and graduated early from University of Virginia School of Medicine. He then joined the Navy, serving as a surgeon in World War I on hospital and transport ships. Norburn worked at Philadelphia Naval Hospital as the operating surgeon, transferred to Washington, and was appointed by the U.S. Surgeon General to accompany President Warren Harding on a voyage to Alaska on the USS Henderson as his personal surgeon.

When Norburn left the Navy in 1923, he settled in Asheville and began practicing surgery. In 1928, he and his brother Dr. Russell Norburn purchased and remodeled a building at 346 Montford Ave. and opened the Norburn Hospital & Clinic. The brothers installed an elevator and purchased the best surgical equipment of the day. “It’s my understanding that Uncle Russell was pretty much the administrator, and my father did the surgery,” explains Alexander. “No one specialized back then so he did everything from brain surgery to gallbladders.”

By 1946, the Norburn Hospital had outgrown its building, so the brothers purchased property at 509 Biltmore Ave., which had been a school for girls. They relocated the Norburn Hospital & Clinic to that building, greatly enlarging the space and services.

In 1950, the Norburn Hospital & Clinic was sold to and absorbed by Victoria Hospital; it then merged with other small Asheville-area hospitals and the property was razed to build Memorial Mission Hospital, according to research about North Carolina nursing history from Appalachian State University.

Dr. Norburn went into private practice until his retirement in 1955.

A daughter’s project

In 2020, Alexander unearthed the box where her father had placed each story in individual folders. With some trepidation, she dove in. “I am extremely technical — I was a systems engineer for IBM,” she says. “If I have directions and diagrams, I can build a rocket. I had no idea how to build a book.” Alexander purchased book formatting software, researched publishing online and recruited friends to assist in the project.

During the editing process, she left the stories as close to her father’s final revisions as possible and kept all of his titles. But when it came to ordering the stories, she laughs — admitting she had no idea how to tackle that. “I thought about throwing them all up in the air and seeing where they landed or drawing the titles out of a hat,” she explains. “In the end, I just did the best I could.”

DAUGHTERLY DUTY: Lillian Norburn Alexander inherited a pile of stories her late father, Dr. Charles S. Norburn, had written throughout his life. She turned those stories into a book called The Cry in the Night: Dramas From the Life of a Doctor, which she self-published in September. Photo courtesy of Alexander

Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe pointed Alexander to Gold Leaf Literary Services, an Asheville-based literary agency. Her consultant suggested self-publishing with IngramSpark. So Alexander gathered archival and family photos and old newspaper articles from microfilm. She designed the graphic for each chapter that evokes the mountains her father loved and selected the cover art.

Alexander notes that with one exception, the entire body of work is creative nonfiction.  “All of the stories are based on things that actually happened,” she explains. The one exception is the story “The Woman with the Yellow Hair,” which Norburn wrote “facing the thought of death as a young doctor,” his daughter says.

Many of the stories and characters are grim, such as the man in “Darkness,” whose skin changes color — a condition known as argyrism — from overexposure to silver. In the title story, a woman married to an abusive man goes mad caring for his sister’s severely disabled child, who incessantly cries in the night. And in “A Stranger Here,” he saves the life of a young woman immediately post-childbirth, but the baby girl is stillborn.

Other pursuits

Throughout his career, Norburn pursued an interest in another type of organ: He created and held the patents for four pipe organ inventions still in use today. He had a pipe organ installed in his parents’ house on Stuyvesant Road in Biltmore Forest, where he lived until in 1936. That year, he purchased nearly 20 acres of property on Valley Springs Road to build his home, and he installed a pipe organ as well.

It wasn’t until 1940, at 50 years old, that Norburn married Helen Sophia Johnson, a technician in the Montford hospital who was 20 years his junior. Asked why her father married so late in life, Alexander says she thinks he was just terribly busy. “He had his work, and he was always doing something else,” she explains. “He had a dairy farm, he wrote, he collected art and antiques, he traveled, he was a talented woodworker. He was a true polymath.”

The couple raised four children on their Valley Springs Road estate. Norburn also purchased a 168-acre dairy farm in Mills River, where he bred Guernsey cattle, and a 200-year-old beach home, which he meticulously restored, on Pawleys Island in South Carolina.

“It could be hard growing up in the house of a genius, and probably hardest on my only brother,” Alexander says. “It was quite structured. We dressed for dinner in the dining room.  We had servants. He knew so many people we’d go on Sunday drives as a family to visit people.”

In 1990, shortly after celebrating his 100th birthday in Florida where he was living with his son, Norburn told his adult children he was ready to go. “He said he’d had a full, long and wonderful life and was done,” Alexander says. “He stopped eating and drinking and a week later he was gone.”

Though Norburn insisted his children be raised in the Episcopal faith, Alexander says he did not attend church. “He did not necessarily believe in a god that directed everything that happened in the world,” she explains. “But he believed there was something, he believed in the miracle of the human body, he believed in humankind and that life is such a miracle. He was so grateful for life and not fearful of death.”

UPDATED: This article was updated on April 12, 2023.


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About Kay West
Kay West was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, StyleBlueprint Nashville, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. To kick off 2019 she put Tennessee in her rear view mirror, drove into the mountains of WNC, settled in West Asheville and appreciates that writing offers the opportunity to explore and learn her new home. She looks forward to hiking trails, biking greenways, canoeing rivers, sampling local beer and cheering the Asheville Tourists.

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