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Biographical entry Barrett, Norman Rupert (1903 - 1979)

CBE 1969; MRCS 1928; FRCS 1930; MA Cambridge 1930; MCh 1931; LRCP 1928.

16 May 1903
Adelaide, Australia
8 January 1979
Thoracic surgeon


Norman Barrett was born in Adelaide, Australia, on 16 May 1903. He was one of the great pioneers of thoracic surgery. After spending his early years in Australia he came to England and was educated at Eton where he was distinguished in both academic and athletic fields. He proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating with first class honours in 1925 and then went to St Thomas's Hospital and qualified in 1928. He then held resident house appointments there, and obtained the coveted post of resident assistant surgeon. The foundations were truly laid for a great surgical career and a Rockefeller Travelling Fellowship enabled him to visit the USA and spend a fruitful time at the Mayo Clinic, where he formed lasting friendships and gained valuable experience.

He was elected to the surgical staff at St Thomas's Hospital in 1935 and developed an increasing interest in chest diseases and thoracic surgery, making a special study of disorders of the lower oesophagus, and soon was recognised as an authority in this field. He was appointed to the surgical staff of the Brompton Hospital, becoming a member of an important group of thoracic surgeons who travelled extensively to meet the increasing demands for the surgical treatment of pulmonary tuberculosis. Norman Barrett visited, usually at weekends, hospitals and sanatoria in Cornwall and Wales. From his experience in South Wales he became acknowledged as an authority on hydatid disease of the lungs. During the second world war he was a consultant adviser to the Emergency Medical Service and in 1944 he was appointed consultant thoracic surgeon to King Edward VII Sanatorium, Midhurst, and the Ministry of Pensions.

Norman Barrett was a brilliant teacher and attracted undergraduates and post-graduates in great numbers to hear him lecture or talk informally. He was an excellent writer and was the first surgical editor of the new journal Thorax from 1946 to 1971 and took endless trouble with its contributions. He admitted that his choice of words and literary style owed a great deal to the influence of his wife, Betty - a well known writer. Norman's own publications are outstanding and widely read for they are the embodiment of precision, authority and experience. He was an examiner for the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Birmingham and Khartoum. For many years he was a member of the Court of Examiners of the Royal College of Surgeons, eventually becoming its Chairman.

In 1963 he was elected to the Council of the Royal College of Surgeons and for sixteen years he played a very attractive and valuable part in its work. For the last two years of this period he was Vice-President of the College. He was appointed CBE for his outstanding work. Norman Barrett had an international reputation as evidenced by his honorary membership of many overseas societies and his election as President of the Association of Thoracic Surgeons and of the Thoracic Society.

Amidst all the success and international admiration Norman Barrett was basically a humble man, genuinely modest about his important achievements and surgical contributions, and always seeking how he could do better. He had other interests too, for he was an excellent draughtsman and painter and he illustrated many of his publications, the letters NRB being plainly visible in one corner. He loved sailing and the sea and this is clearly shown in some of his marine paintings. In addition he was an historian and delivered an admirable Vicary Lecture, entitled The last illnesses of Henry VIII.

Norman had a happy home life with his wife Betty and their two daughters in their historic house on Richmond Green, where so many friends and colleagues from home and abroad received a warm and memorable welcome. Their hospitality was renowned. During his last few years Norman's health was impaired by disability, but his faculties and intelligence remained undimmed. He died on 8 January 1979, aged 76 years.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 19 November 1979; Brit med J 1979, 1, 203; Ann Roy Coll Surg Eng 1979, 61, 414-415].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England