Dr. Norman C. Nelson, who led the University of Mississippi Medical Center during 21 years of its most dynamic growth, died at his home on April 21. He was 86.
Nelson was the longest-serving leader in UMMC's history
A memorial service is scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday, April 27 at St. Paul's Catholic Church in Flowood. Nelson will be buried in Lafeyette, LA. Ott and Lee Funeral Home of Brandon is handling arrangements.
Nelson was the first UMMC leader to receive the title of vice chancellor for health affairs at his appointment. Vice chancellors since his tenure were Dr. Wallace Conerly, Dr. Daniel W. Jones, Dr. James E. Keeton and Dr. LouAnn Woodward.
“Dr. Nelson was the vice chancellor when I was in medical school,” Woodward said. “I remember him as a champion for the students and a well-respected surgeon and leader. He was passionate about the growth and advancement of the medical center.
Nelson with Dr. Wallace Conerly, his hand-picked successor as vice chancellor of health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine
"He was the longest-serving leader in the history of UMMC, facing challenges with creativity and determination while expanding the size, influence and reputation of the Medical Center. His name will always be synonymous with commitment to excellence."
Dr. Keeton, who stepped down as vice chancellor in 2015 after six years in the role, said Nelson's tenure was remarkable.
"I was always struck by the fact that the average longevity of people in these positions is about six years. Dr. Nelson served nearly four times that long. We all stand in awe of his achievement."
In recent years, although a stroke confined him to a motorized scooter and limited his ability to speak, Nelson routinely made appearances at Medical Center events. One of those is the annual recognition of faculty admitted to the Nelson Order recognizing UMMC's best teachers, named for Nelson and scheduled for May 9.
Nelson began his career in academic medicine at Louisiana State University Medical Center in New Orleans, La., rising through the ranks to become medical school dean. He came to Mississippi's health sciences campus in 1973 as vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. At the beginning of his remarkable tenure, the Medical Center consisted of two health professional schools, a teaching hospital and a small research program.
Nelson is remembered as a "champion for the students" by Dr. LouAnn Woodward, current UMMC vice chancellor for health affairs
When he retired in 1994, he had transformed the institution into a nationally respected health sciences campus with four health professional schools, a major teaching hospital, a robust research program, and the largest, funded physical plant expansion package in the state's educational history. That package of eight new buildings, added to the 10 authorized and constructed during his tenure, essentially gave the Medical Center a new physical plant.
Former College Board Member Frank Crosthwait Jr., of Indianola, worked with Nelson from 1984 until Dr. Nelson's retirement in 1994. He called him “a valued friend” he greatly admired.
“He gave UMMC outstanding leadership during a period of great growth and was well-respected not only by his peers but the citizens of Mississippi,” Crosthwait said.
Brad Dye, who served as Mississippi's lieutenant governor from 1980 to 1992, said Nelson's “outstanding leadership and vision have benefitted and will forever impact every Mississippian. His untiring work ethic and focus were always on improving health care and making it accessible to all citizens.
Nelson was also a skillful practitioner who held a U.S. Public Health Service Fellowship at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital
“He was convincing and skillful in presenting to the legislature the needs and potential of the Medical Center, its patients, students and employees,” Dye said. “He was also a valued and trusted friend to me and countless others who admired and respected him.”
Dr. Nelson first came to Mississippi at age 5 when his father, an attorney, brought the National Park Hotel in Vicksburg. His family also lived briefly in Biloxi before moving to Houston, Texas, where he completed primary and secondary school. From Texas, he went to Tulane University in New Orleans where he earned his B.S. in 1951 and the M.D. in 1954 and was tapped for membership in the academic honor societies of Sigma XI, Phi Kappa Phi and Alpha Omega Alpha.
He interned at Charity Hospital of New Orleans, then spent a year in private practice before serving from 1956 to 1958 on active duty as a captain in the Medical Corps, USAR 101st Airborne Division. He took his residency in general surgery at Charity Hospital from 1958-1962 and then held a U.S. Public Health Service Fellowship at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital as a clinical research fellow from 1962-1963. He joined the LSU surgery faculty in 1963, became the medical school's associate dean in 1969 and dean in 1971.
From 1965 to 1970, Nelson held a prestigious John and Mary R. Markle Fellowship, one of the most coveted honors in academic medicine. Among his other recognitions were the 1969 Arthur M. Shipley Award from the Southern Surgical Association; eight awards for teaching excellence during his years at LSU; the 1985 (and first) Herman Glazier Award as the Outstanding Public Administrator from the Mississippi Chapter of the American Society for Public Administrators; the 1989 Outstanding Alumnus Award from the Tulane School of Medicine; and a 2013 Hall of Fame election by the Medical Alumni Chapter of the University of Mississippi Alumni Association.
Nelson's "outside the box" thinking is credited for helping fund the student union at UMMC, which bears his name
But no honor meant more to Nelson than the dedication of the student union at the Medical Center in his name. He frequently told his faculty and staff that the “only reason we have a job is because of our students” because the institution's principal mission is “to train health professionals for Mississippi.”
Dr. Dan Jones, who served as vice chancellor from 2003 to 2009, said “Norman Nelson excelled in every area of academic medicine leadership. I think of him as the vice chancellor and dean who set us on the course of having the education of health professionals as our highest priority. His vision is indelibly stamped on the University of Mississippi Medical Center.”
Nelson with his bride of 61 years, Annie Lee
Nelson was predeceased by his parents, Sander Noble Nelson and Lillian Olsen Nelson of Houston, TX; and his brother, Sander of Houston, TX. Survivors include Annie Lee, his wife of 61 years whom he always referred to as his best friend; their children, Dr. Norman C. Nelson, Jr. and his wife, Rebecca, of Macon, GA and their children, Meredith Lancaster and her husband, Jonathan of Atlanta, GA, Sarah and Julia, of Atlanta, GA., Charles E. Nelson of Brandon, Dr. Jennifer A. Nelson of New Orleans, LA. He is also survived by two nephews, Eric Nelson of Houston, TX, Lee Nelson and his wife, Lisa of Gainesville, FL; and their children, Ashley of Los Angeles, CA and Christopher of Atlanta, GA.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations in Dr. Nelson's memory be made to the University of Mississippi Medical Center Cancer Institute, c/o of the Development Office, 2500 North State Street, Jackson, MS 39216.