“...Buncombe men and women will be glad that Dr. [Charles] Norburn returns now to cast his lot with Asheville, Buncombe and North Carolina.”Asheville Citizen, October 9, 1923, pg. 4

Dr. Charles Norburn's Return to Western North Carolina 100 years ago and His Lasting Impact

Dr. Charles Norburn's return to Asheville and Western North Carolina in 1923—after an already storied medical career including being designated surgeon to the president (POTUS)—forever changed the medical community of this region. Through the founding of the Norburn Hospital in 1928, he raised the standard of all medical facilities in Asheville and brought other nationally recognized physicians to the region; and through his generosity and devotion to human life, he increased medical knowledge and patient care by providing Western North Carolina, at no cost, with one of the largest and most complete medical libraries in the U.S. (later inherited by Memorial Mission Hospital).

Raised the Standard of Medical Facilities in Western North Carolina

The physical facilities at Norburn Hospital are considerably superior to the average small hospital.”  —Willis J. Gray, Director of Jennings Memorial Hospital in Detroit.1

At its first location at 346 Montford Avenue, some of the newest and most up to date medical equipment in Western North Carolina was installed at Norburn, including “one of the finest X-Rays in the country.”2 When the second location of the Norburn Hospital was established in 1946 at 509 Biltmore Avenue in Asheville (now the location of Mission Hospital), yet again, it was updated with the finest equipment. This is borne out by many newspaper mentions, including a picture and description of Norburn's ‘Deep Therapy X-Ray’ (detailed in “Among the Many Complicated Machines at Norburn Hospital”).3 More information can be found in the detail of the facilities in the '40s Norburn Hospital Booklet.

Multiple top-of-the-line X-Ray equipment newspaper mentions occur at both locations. It should be noted that in addition to Dr. Charles Norburn's storied career as a surgeon, for a brief period he was an instructor in Radiology at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Washington, D.C.,4 a few months after his second residency at the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.

At a time when multiple small hospitals in Asheville competed with each other for patients, having the most up to date and accurate medical equipment provided an incentive for other hospitals to update their equipment, resulting in an overall increase in the standard hospital equipment in Asheville and Western North Carolina. Even so, Norburn Hospital still far outpaced other Asheville hospitals in this regard, as noted by Dr. Gray in 1950.

Brought Other Nationally Recognized Physicians To The Area

Among the many physicians who were brought to Asheville to work at Norburn Hospital was Dr. Lewis Rathbun of Illinois, graduate of Harvard Medical School,5 who eventually founded the Rathbun Center. Dr. F. Irby Stephens of Johns Hopkins Hospital was another notable addition to the Norburn Hospital, coming in July 1948. Dr. Stephens resided with his family on the Norburn Hospital grounds6 (the Norburn campus was extensive with many buildings for physicians and medical personnel, and the site of many community events7). Both of these physicians and many others continued to stay in the area and contribute their expertise, forever changing the medical landscape of Western North Carolina.

Provided Memorial Mission Hospital with One of the Largest Medical Libraries in the U.S.

The medical library that Dr. Norburn alone owned and amassed, beginning in the late 1910s and continuing up to 1950 (and provided at Norburn Hospital) was one of the largest and most complete in the entire United States—several thousand volumes—and Dr. Norburn had made this library free for use for all medical professionals, regardless of hospital affiliation. That is, at his own expense he made sure that all Western North Carolina medical professionals had the knowledge they needed to best care for their patients. Appstate references “the large and valuable medical library formerly belonging to Dr. Charles [S]. Norburn.” Long before the internet, this library provided area physicians the most up to date medical information, in turn raising the quality of care for the people of Asheville and Western North Carolina. This was no doubt at least part of the reason that physicians who were outstanding in their respective fields moved to Asheville to join Norburn.

When Asheville hospitals merged at the site of Norburn, Dr. Charles Norburn's famous medical library was inherited by Memorial Mission Hospital (now Mission Hospital). Norburn Hospital librarian Hattie McKay wrote in 1950, “Memorial Mission Hospital has indeed inherited a rare jewel.”8

1: The Asheville Citizen-Times, October 8, 1950, pg. 4, second column from left, middle of the page.
2: Asheville Citizen, 13 May 1928, Front Page, above the fold, “Best Surgical Equipment Obtainable Ordered for Institution”
3: Asheville Citizen, May 11, 1949, Section Two, pg. 1.
4: Evening Star, Washington, D.C., Wednesday, October 11, 1922
5: Asheville Citizen-Times, September 21, 1947, pg. 45, “Dr. Rathbun Joins Staff At Norburn”.
6: Asheville Citizen-Times, July 4, 1948, pg. 10, “Irby Stephens Joins Norburn Hospital Staff”.
7: The headquarters for the League of American Pen Women was located in Pease Hall on Norburn Hospital Grounds. Asheville Citizen-Times, November 16, 1947, Section C, First Page, photo caption, bottom left. On the left is noted League President “Mrs. George Whitfield Mead”; she is Martha Norburn Mead, sister of Dr. Norburn. She is notable for being one of the first women to receive a PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and she is also author of the very widely quoted book—the product of her UNC dissertation—with two titles: Asheville in Land of the Sky (as Martha Norburn Mead) and Asheville and Land of the Sky (as Martha Norburn Allen). There is also a photograph of her and an extensive article written by her in the Asheville Citizen-Times. March 6, 1938, pg. 7, “Geography Plays Important Role In Asheville's Growth”; 3 columns and photograph. The Buncombe County Medical Society also met on Norburn grounds; see Asheville Citizen, March 17, 1947, Page 1, leftmost column.
8: Asheville Times, December 26, 1950. Another article in the Asheville Times on February 28, 1954, also details the extent of this collection.