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John MacKenzie Norris was born on March 3, 1925, in Kelowna, BC, to Jean Mary Norris Denovan and Thomas Grantham Norris. At his birth, his father, T.G. Norris, was practicing as a lawyer in Kelowna and subsequently served as a judge on both the British Columbia Supreme Court and the British Columbia Court of Appeal. John Norris had an older sister and a younger brother, attended elementary schools in Kelowna and Vancouver, and graduated from Lord Byng Secondary School in Vancouver. He enlisted with the Royal Navy in 1943 and, after returning, attended UBC from 1946-1949, where he obtained both a Bachelor of Arts Degree (1948) and a Master of Arts Degree (1949). At UBC, he met Barbara Violet Casey, whom he married in 1947. They had one son, Thomas Norris. John Norris pursued additional graduate work at Northwestern University, obtaining his Ph.D. in 1955 and post-graduate studies at the London School of Economics.
In 1953, John Norris began teaching as an instructor within the Department of History at the University of British Columbia and in 1964 became a Professor of the Department of History. He published five books and numerous articles in the areas of administrative, economic and demographic history. During the 1970s, he began to change his academic focus towards the history of medicine. Over the next few decades, he specialized in studying the history of various diseases, including plague, cholera, and scurvy.
In 1980, John Norris was appointed Professor and Director of the Division of the History of Medicine and Science at UBC. He continued to serve in this role until his retirement early in 1990, when he was extended the title of Professor Emeritus in the History of Medicine. He continued to teach on a part-time basis until at least 2004.
Norris served on many boards and committees, including acting as the Chair of the Osler Medal Committee of the American Association for the History of Medicine (1978-1979); as Chair of the Programme Committee of the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine (1983); and as the Chair of the Grants Committee of the Hannah Institute for the History of Medicine (1980). At UBC, he served in such capacities as Chairman, University Curriculum Committee, UBC (1968-1974); as a Member of the University Senate (1964-1974); and as Chairman of the University Grievance Committee (1968-1969). In addition, he held an American Council of Learned Societies Graduate Fellowship, 1951-3; a Nuffield Commonwealth Fellowship, 1961-1962. A Canada Council Senior Fellowship, 1967-1968; and a Killam Senior Research Scholarship, from 1975-1976.
John Norris was an active member in politics, first in the CCF and subsequently of the NDP. In 1963, he unsuccessfully ran to be NDP representative for Vancouver Centre during the British Columbia Provincial election. John Norris died on May 2, 2010. At the time of his death, he was working on a history of cholera.