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James Norton, '69 and Ph.D. '79: Teachable moments
By Jennifer Durgin
Click-click, tap-tap goes the chalk in James Norton's hand. He's jotting down words—"iron," "erythropoietin," "DNA," "marrow," "protein," "B12," "folate"—on the blackboard as his students call them out. "Oxygen?" one student suggests.
"Okay . . ." Norton pauses. "You need that to live," he admits. Several students chuckle, knowing he's looking for something more specific. He adds quickly, "I'll put it up, though."
Eventually, other students call out the remaining words he's looking for—"stem cells" and "ferritin."
As James Norton, Ph.D., professor and chair of physiology at Maine's University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine (UNECOM), delves into hematopoiesis—the formation of red blood cells—he draws sweeping lines from one word to another and gestures emphatically. He looks like a coach diagramming a play. His voice is energetic. He seems every bit the extrovert.
In private conversation, however, Norton is much more subdued. His public persona is intentional but "it's not fake," says Norton. Being outgoing in the classroom gets students' attention, he explains. The persona is also "a little bit of a defense mechanism," something that he can switch off at will. Although he loves teaching, interacting with students is draining for him. When his lectures are over, he often goes to the gym to be by himself for a couple of hours.
Norton, who grew up in Maine, never imagined he would become a teacher. Although neither of his parents had gone to college, as a bright but shy youngster he was told, "You're a smart kid. You do well in school. You can be anything you want."
"There was this societal idea that being a doctor was about the highest thing," says Norton. So he decided to become a physician.
Raised Catholic, Norton attended a Jesuit high school in South Portland, Maine, and enrolled in 1963 at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He majored in classics because he wanted to explore subjects other than the sciences; he figured he'd get enough of them in medical school. In 1967, he began the two-year medical sciences program at Dartmouth, after which, like many DMS students at that time, he transferred to Harvard Medical School.
But his clinical rotations at Harvard gave Norton the feeling that medicine was not for him. "I had an idea of physicians based upon the pediatrician that came to our house when I was a kid back in the 1950s," he says. But "the instructors I had during my surgery clerkship and medicine clerkship just weren't like that at all. They were these high-powered tertiary-care types, specialist folks. . . . It's just, I didn't fit." So Norton left medical school in 1971. Although it was the right decision for him, leaving school cost him his draft deferment.
With the Vietnam War still raging, he started getting calls from military recruiters. But just as Norton had known that medicine wasn't right for him, he knew he simply couldn't go to war. "I didn't see why anybody who was a Catholic would be anything other than a conscientious objector," he says.
Yet some of the Jesuit priests who had taught him in high school refused to write letters of support for him to give to his draft board. A Quaker friend finally helped him achieve conscientious- objector status. "I thought that taking a human life is an absolute wrong," says Norton, "and I still do."
For the next few years, Norton worked as a research assistant in a blood-cell lab at Maine Medical Center in Portland. He was nearly 30 when he decided to go back to school. Medicine hadn't been the right choice, but he still enjoyed learning about how bodies work. So he came to DMS, again, this time to get a Ph.D. in physiology.
"During the Ph.D. program at Dartmouth, we had plenty of opportunities to give seminars," Norton recalls. "We had a good group of graduate students who would attend one another's seminars and meet down at Peter Christian's [a pub in Hanover] and just ruthlessly dissect everything that we did, in a good way. . . . 'You gotta stop scratching yourself.' 'You kept talking to the board.' All that kind of stuff. And I thought, there's really something to this."
He began paying attention to how all his professors taught, mentally filing away different techniques. The colored chalk Norton likes to use "is a little homage to Marsh Tenney," he says of a noted former DMS dean. Heinz Valtin, M.D., a professor emeritus of physiology, "is very logical in the way he explains things. So some things require the students to just sit back and listen through a logical series of arguments." But Norton thinks he probably teaches most like Robert Gosselin, M.D., Ph.D., a professor emeritus of pharmacology. "He would stop and talk to himself in the middle of class if he lost his train of thought," Norton remembers. "He did stuff I find myself doing."
After completing his Ph.D. in 1979, Norton returned to Maine Medical Center, this time as a research associate in a blood-cell lab. A year later, he became an
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Jennifer Durgin is Dartmouth Medicine magazine's senior writer.