Dr. Norma Farmer


Beloved doctor surpasses 102 mark
(April 2003)

Most people live their life and consider reaching an old age and making good friends along the way as an accomplishment. But for Dr. Norma Farmer, now 102 years young, living a long life has taken on new meaning - she's still going strong and still charming people every step of the way.

Farmer is an icon of sorts at Presbyterian Manor where she's lived since March of 1993. One wall in her room holds a mural of photos and clippings outlining an amazing lifetime. It's that life that included more than three decades as a medical missionary to India, a storybook acquaintance with a British soldier she would later marry, her start into the medical profession in 1929, and her return to the United States and, in her later years, living and working in Farmington.

"She's an amazing woman that's for sure," recalled John Farmer, her stepson, as he watched Norma receiving attention on her birthday April 25. "I'm working on writing down my memories to pass along to the future generations."

While Norma's memory and hearing may be failing, her voice and commanding personality are still strong. "It's my birthday ... sing happy birthday," she'd say repeatedly. "Clap your hands ... everybody celebrate with me." A group of residents, workers and visitors would sing, then clap, then sing again at Norma's command. The day ended with a birthday cake and a proclamation by Mayor Charles Rorex noting April 25, 2003 as Dr. Norma Farmer Day in Farmington.

The paths traveled by Farmer to get to her 102nd birthday are an intriguing and captivating roadmap of a woman who seemingly defied the odds and cut her own swath across several continents to do a job she felt strongly about. John Farmer relayed as much as he could recall, pickup up the main details of the story at a point when Norma was already running a 100-bed hospital in Kolhapur, India.

"She got her M.D. at a time when few women were getting into medicine, in the 1920s. She graduated in 1929 and immediately headed for India in 1932 or 1933. Once there she was put in charge of a 100-bed hospital. She was a do-it-all surgeon," John relayed. What happened between 1933 and 1942 with the exception of everyday life is not known. It was in 1942 that John's father, S.J. Farmer, made a trip to the hospital and first met the woman he would soon marry for life.

"That's an intriguing story in itself," John adds. "My father was a British soldier, an accountant, stationed in Burma when the Germans attacked in 1941. He sent me to India by boat. He escaped by air taking the records of his British military unit with him, their financial and personnel records." He tells how S.J. set up a new office in India and made connections with the soldiers in his group as they limped in to the new military office with "every disease imaginable from walking through India." The soldiers were sent to a hospital in Kolhapur for treatment. A short time later S.J. sent his young teenage son, John, to the hospital for a routine checkup. There he met Norma and rushed back to tell his dad in amazement about the pretty female American doctor working there.

S.J. soon made a trip to the hospital himself to meet this young missionary and within a year the two were married.

"She wanted me to be a medical doctor. She would dress me up and make me go in the operating room and watch operations. She thought I enjoyed it, but I (really) didn't," John recalls, smiling. "I really liked the laboratory. It was her baby-sitting place and I'd spend time there looking in the microscopes at cells and things. I went on to become a biologist." John retired from the University of Oklahoma in 1997.

Norma remained in India as a Presbyterian missionary at the hospital for a few more years following her marriage to S.J. She eventually returned to America and worked in the medical field until the couple, by chance, happened to visit Farmington to see John's old Boy Scout scoutmaster - who had retired here. "We came to visit and someone indicated the manor needed a director. Norma came and took the job," John recalls.

After several years at Presbyterian Manor, Norma took a job with the state working at Farmington State Hospital, No. 4 - now known as Southeast Missouri Mental Health Center. She worked there for another decade before finally retiring for good.

Now, all these years later, the fact that Norma Farmer was always giving of herself doesn't seem so surprising. For according to John, Norma's father had served as a missionary to Africa when she was a little girl around the turn of the century.

"We just love her ... she's such a neat lady ... she's just a sweetheart," were a few of the comments being said about the more-than-a-centenarian on Friday as she barked out orders that everyone should celebrate her special day with her. Everyone within the sound of her high-pitched, shrill but still very strong and commanding voice couldn't help but celebrate with her, especially after all these years.

(Daily Journal, Park Hills, St. Francois County, Missouri, Friday, May 2, 2003)