March 23, 1925-May 2, 2010
John Norris, member of the University of British Columbia’s Department of History from 1953 until his retirement in 1990, died in Vancouver following a prolonged struggle with stroke-induced memory loss.
Born in Kelowna, a boy and adolescent during the Depression, and approaching young manhood as World War Two broke out, John was shaped by his early experiences in ways that bred a strong identification with British Columbia, a lifelong concern with social and economic reform, and an entrenched commitment to service. Active duty with the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy from 1943 to 1945 –– recognized by award of the Distinguished Service Cross for “meritorious or distinguished service before the enemy” –– was an early manifestation of his impulse to serve. Campaign work for the British Labour Party in the transformational general election of 1945 announced a continuing involvement in social democratic politics. Graduation with an MA in history from the University of British Columbia in 1949 marked engagement with a field that would provide important –– though far from dominating –– opportunities to explore British Columbia’s evolution and development.
John’s historical work took him into several areas. A strong interest in British history saw him pursue Ph. D studies in the field at University College London and at Northwestern University from which he received his doctoral degree in 1955. Focussing on the first great reforming period in modern British history, he wrote his thesis on Lord Shelburne’s attempts to bring ideas associated with Priestley, Bentham, and others in their circle into active politics, completed a book on the subject, and taught in the area during most of his career at UBC. Attracted, too, by the history of science, and especially interested in the evolution of medical practice and the understanding of disease, he explored the etiology of the plague, published on this and related matters, served on the editorial board of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, and was Director of the Division of the History of Medicine and Science in the Faculty of Medicine at UBC from 1980 until his retirement. Strongly attuned to the life of British Columbia, he maintained a continuing interest in its history, treating the province as both a distinctively positioned, Pacific/European settler society (a theme explored in his 1971 study Strangers Entertained: A History of the Ethnic Groups of British Columbia) and as an entity situated in complex international and political contexts from the earliest days of European contact (a view strongly expressed in a widely-read English Historical Review article on the Anglo-Spanish Nootka Crisis of 1790).
A committed, thoughtful, and innovative teacher, John successfully experimented in the classroom, in one memorable instance with a course in modern British history taught in reverse chronological order in order that students’ awareness of contemporary events serve to shift them towards engagement with background, sequence, and, ultimately, a more serious encounter with origins and development in general. Medical students, taking his course in the history of their field, found –– to their pleasure and excitement –– their preconceived notions concerning medicine’s nature and development exposed as the often myth-based and unsubstantiated constructs they were. An interest in graduate education was especially pronounced: a key figure in the introduction of the Department of History’s Ph. D programme in the 1960’s, and an on-going participant in planning and reform of graduate education at the faculty and university levels in the years beyond, John was also an exemplary graduate seminar leader, a rigorous supervisor of his students’ research work, and a strict but enormously fair and informed taskmaster in all phases of student activity.
Evident in teaching and scholarship, John’s dedication and commitment to the community around him was also conspicuous in his service pursuits, both inside and outside the university. Active involvement in the contentious, difficult, and sometimes very political work done by the Users’ Committee formed in the late 1960’s to prepare departments for their move into the under-construction Buchanan Tower was long said –– though never by John –– to have had everything to do with the Department of History’s occupancy of the top two floors of the building, and with it, the enjoyment of prospects and views of which even Capability Brown might have approved.
Public life exercised an on-going fascination: John’s candidacy for the New Democratic Party in the provincial election of 1966 positioned him –– had he won his closely contested fight, and had the party won the election –– as the leading contender for appointment as Minister of Education. He remained, in the years following, a confidant and advisor of major figures in the party’s leadership.
Committed to his fields of interest, to his teaching, and to his university, keenly aware of citizenship’s duties and responsibilities, and a generous, honourable, and well-intentioned human being, John was a fine colleague and a strong member of his community. He will be well-remembered, and much missed, by his many students, friends, colleagues, and associates.