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Norcom, James, Sr.

by W. Conard Gass, 1991

29 Dec. 1778–9 Nov. 1850

See also: Jacobs, Harriet

A portrait of Dr. James Norcom, Sr., attributed to Otis Bass. Image from the North Carolina Museum of History.James Norcom, Sr., physician, was born in Chowan County, the son of John and Miriam Standin Norcom. He received his early education at schools in Chowan County—among them, the Edenton Academy, of which he later served for many years as a trustee. At seventeen he began to study medicine in Philadelphia, where he was both a private student of Benjamin Rush and a matriculant at the medical school of the University of Pennsylvania. The medical school faculty, which, in addition to Rush, included such eminent physicians as Caspar Wistar and William Shippen, emphasized instruction by means of clinical observation as well as lectures; and Shippen, at least, made use of dissection. Norcom was awarded the M.D. degree in 1797 after a defense of his Inaugural Thesis on Jaundice, Containing Observations on the Liver, and Some of Its Diseases (1799), which ran to forty-nine printed pages.

Norcom entered the practice of medicine at Edenton, where he became one of the earliest clinical investigators of diseases prevalent in eastern North Carolina. Although Edenton was then the home of several long-established physicians, he soon gained a large practice and a wide reputation as a skillful diagnostician. As a result of overwork, however, his health broke and he became apprehensive that he might contract tuberculosis. He traveled to Philadelphia and consulted his former teachers, particularly his mentor Rush, who prescribed a long sea voyage, especially to the East Indies. Norcom took Rush's advice and spent about three years traveling to various parts of the world, including the Far East. He practiced medicine aboard ship and among the natives of the places he visited and studied the distinctive characteristics of the climate, people, and diseases of the different areas.

His health restored, Norcom returned to Edenton, where, except for a brief period of service as an army surgeon in the War of 1812, he practiced medicine until the last day of his long life. His practice was both lucrative and extensive. He was often called in as a consultant in puzzling or serious cases from distances of over one hundred miles. His personal practice embraced the counties of Chowan, Perquimans, Pasquotank, Camden, Gates, Washington, Bertie, Hertford, and Martin until advanced age prevented him from traveling over such a wide area.

Like his preceptor Rush, who taught his students to "bleed as long as you can get blood; if you can't get blood get water; if you can't get water get wind," Norcom made frequent use of the lancet. His practice was largely confined to medicine, as he had few opportunities for surgery; most of the operations he performed would be classified as minor surgery. He was nevertheless eminently successful in the adjustment and treatment of fractures and reductions and in the management of dislocations. Although Norcom wrote much on medical subjects, only a few of his articles were published, including essays on tetanus, the winter epidemic of 1816, cholera, the endemic summer and autumnal fevers of eastern North Carolina, scarlatina, and influenza. Appearing in such medical journals of the day as the Philadelphia Medical Museum, the Eclectic Repertory, and the American Medical and Philosophical Register, his writings received the approbation of the medical profession.

During most of his life Norcom made and recorded careful observations of weather, temperature, and barometric pressure and compared his records for different years, relating them to the varieties of illness occurring most frequently during the same periods. From these studies he drew certain conclusions concerning the ecology of disease, especially epidemics, and often made accurate predictions as to the character and type of the ailments of an approaching season. Not only was Norcom at home with medical literature, but also he was a serious student of literature and science in general, being particularly fond of the natural sciences, and his opinion was sometimes sought on literary matters. His letters to his family and friends indicate that he was a keen observer of people and social groups and that he was a social, economic, and political conservative and a stern but loving father to his nine children.

A portrait of James Norcom's wife Mary Matilda Horniblow Norcom  (1778-1850). Image from the North Carolina Museum of History. As a physician he did much charity work, declaring himself unable to "turn a deaf ear to the sufferings of the indigent . . . even in its connection with vice and infamy." Nevertheless, he managed to accumulate a great deal of wealth during one period of his life, though he left a small estate. A large portion of his income was consumed in the education of his children, much was given to philanthropic causes, and a great deal was used to pay off the debts of others for whom he had stood as surety.

In 1801 Norcom married Mary Curtis, from whom he was divorced about 1805. They had one son, John (1802), who became a physician in Washington, N.C. On 24 July 1810 Norcom married sixteen-year-old Mary (Maria) Horniblow, by whom he had eight children: James, Jr. (1811), who became a prominent planter in Chowan County; Benjamin Rush (1813); Mary Matilda (1822); Elizabeth Hannah (1826); Caspar Wistar (1828), who went to California to practice medicine during the gold rush; H. Standin and Abner, twins; and William Augustus B. (1836).

In politics Norcom was a Whig. An active churchman, he was long a member of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Edenton. In the autumn of 1850, while making a house call to a patient at night, he fell down a flight of steps, hitting his head against the post and losing consciousness. The physicians called to his aid followed the approved medical procedure of the day for such cases and bled him copiously in both arms—"bled him to death," his granddaughter later declared. He never recovered. He was buried in the cemetery of St. Paul's Church, Edenton. He had practiced medicine for over fifty years.

Norcom's portrait is reproduced in the two-volume Medicine in North Carolina: Essays in the History of Medical Science and Medical Service, 1524–1960 (1972), edited by Dorothy Long, which also contains a partial list of Norcom's published writings.

Norcom has been identified as the "licentious master" who subjected the slave, Harriet Jacobs, to "unrelenting sexual harassment." This is recounted in Jacobs's autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1987), edited by Jean Fagan Yellin.

Additional information from NCpedia editors at the State Library of North Carolina: 

Historian Jean Fagan Yellin brought a modern edition of the slave narrative of Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, to publication in 1987 (Harvard University Press). Prior to her escape to the North, Jacobs was a slave of James Norcrom. In Incidents, she later gave her account of the desperation of her life under the violence, abuse, sexual harassment, and predation of Dr. James Norcrom (given the name “Dr. Flint” in the Incidents). In 2004, Yellin published a biography of Harriet Jacobs, which includes scholarship on James Norcrom that exposes incidents of the violence and cruelty that both Dr. and Mrs. Norcrom inflicted on Harriet Jacobs and other enslaved people in their household. (Yellin, Jean Fagan. 2004. Harriet Jacobs: a life. New York: Basic Civitas Books).
-- Kelly Agan, NC Government & Heritage Library


Carl Binger, Revolutionary Doctor: Benjamin Rush, 1746–1813 (1966).

George W. Corner, ed., The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush (1948).

Guion G. Johnson, Ante-Bellum North Carolina: A Social History (1937).

James Norcom and Family Papers (North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh).

W. F. Norwood, Medical Education in the United States before the Civil War (1944).

Transactions of the North Carolina Medical Society (1852, 1917).

John H. Wheeler, ed., Reminiscences and Memoirs of North Carolina and Eminent North Carolinians (1884).

Additional Resources:

Yellin, Jean Fagan. Harriet Jacobs: A Life. Cambridge, U.K.: Basic Civitas Books. 2005. (accessed June 19, 2013).

Long, John Wesley. Early history of the North Carolina Medical Society. [North Carolina? : s.n.]. 1917. (accessed June 19, 2013).

Dillenback, Hiram P. Consumption, bronchitis, asthma, catarrh, and clergyman's sore throat, successfully treated by medicated inhalations : comprising all the recent improvements in this mode of practice, with the remedies used. Boston: published by the author. 1866. 91. (accessed June 19, 2013).

Image Credits:

Bass, Otis, attributed to. "Oil Portrait, Accession #: H.1918.35.3." . North Carolina Museum of History.

"Oil Portrait, Accession #: H.1918.35.2." 1810-1850. North Carolina Museum of History.

Origin - location: 


A vile man inflicting such horrible crimes. Jacobs book is painful to read. It should be required reading in 10 grade because I think it is necessary for our children, both of color and white, to know the horrors of slavery.

After reading Harriet Jacobs account in “Incidents”, I a fellow physician, can only think of this man as a shameful creature who did not uphold the oath to “do no harm” The terrors he inflicted on others who were placed in his guardianship are not offset by any good he may have done as the town’s local doctor.

Having just finished the Jacobs book, thankfully brought to the public’s attention by Yellin, the world would have been a much better place had Dr. Norcom and his equally cruel and abusive wives all fallen — or been pushed — to their deaths many years earlier. Jacobs’ story is further proof of how typical it is to applaud a public figure noted for his or her contributions to society while hypocritically and simultaneously torturing those around them, all of which negates his “good works.”
The truth about Norcom is such a far cry from the noble description of Norcom in the encyclopedia that it leaves the reader with a dizzying and repulsive sense of cognitive dissonance.
Pardon me for switching to the vernacular but after reading his glorious entry in this encyclopedia with a reference to his (incredibly evil) first wife and more typically evil second wife, all I have left to say is that the wider public needs to read Jacobs’ autobiography, that they try not to choke with rage when they read about his so-called religious affiliation and his “generosity” — and know that Norcom and both wives deserve to have all future cemetery visitors spit on their graves.

People like Norcom literally viewed black people as animals, as if they were dogs or mules they owned. His white, handsome face was just a cover for his disgusting mind.

This man was so vile that I searched for his true identity after reading Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography in which she reveals this rapist’s horrible acts. The above account of this man’s life feels racist to me.

The account is certainly not very comprehensive, and without the subsequent addendum completely ignores the history of slaveholding and abuse by him and his wife. I just finished Jacobs’ book, and could hardly put it down till it was finished. Brave and heart rending account from the mostly ignored perspective of a female slave.

Human beings are capable of both very evil, and very good acts. Even in the same person.
Yes, Dr. Norcrom did hideous things, which he should be held completely responsible for. Also, whether I like it or not, he did good things too. People are much more than the sum of their sins. Is there anyone out there who wishes that others would treat them based solely on the bad things that they have done for their entire life??? I didn't think so.

I would own up to every sin I have ever committed, as none could be compared to what Jacobs describes in her book. You should read it before jumping to his defense.

This article is nothing but a slap in the face to all those (both men and women) who suffered while enslaved to this predator and his sadistic wife.
I (and I'm sure his victim's) couldn't care less what good deeds he might have done to maintain his outward image when behind closed doors he was nothing more than a cruel and vile rapist. The rapist was 40 year's Jacobs senior when he started preying on her. Why is the article overlooking this?
His victims deserve more than some small paragraph at the end of a long article that does nothing but praise him.
We also shouldn't excuse ones actions simply because of the era to which they lived. Rape is rape and wrong is wrong.
The author is white washing big time.

I agree every life can have it's content-the 'dash' between birth and death explained in terms of key accomplishments, trials, and experiences. But there is certainly not enough attention and commentary here to address this man's obsession with and cruelty towards Harriet (his daughter's slave-whom he claimed ownership of). Slave owners were given leave to do whatever they pleased, including torture and death as Harriet describes. But to be so intimidated by this 'healer'-to be so worried about how he would torture her her children-she would subject herself to being in an airless/dark/oft-times freezing or suffocatingly hot and narrow space without room to stand or move FOR SEVEN YEARS to protect her children from this man! This deserves more than a sentence or two...

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