Palisadian Maps Out a Century of His Life
By JENNIKA INGRAM | Reporter
Longtime Palisadian professor Norman J. W. Thrower is celebrating his 100th birthday this week—a milestone in a life that has been filled with love, luck and cartography.
As a British subject, part of his birthday celebration on October 23 will be receiving a letter of congratulations from the Queen of England, his daughter, Anne Leonard Thrower, explained.
Norman’s illustrious life began in Crowthorne, Berkshire, UK, in 1919 and led him to America, where he became an author and a distinguished professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“His first job as a geography professor was at UCLA, which he dearly loved,” Anne explained. He worked in the geography department from 1957 to 1990, specializing in cartography, remote sensing and Europe.
He’s also one of the foremost scholars in cartography, according to his longtime friend, Judith Collas, in a letter to the Post: “Professor Thrower is perhaps best known for his book entitled ‘Maps and Civilization’”—a survey of the history of mapmaking.
The book, entering its fourth edition, has been translated into multiple languages, including German, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese.
But, despite his hard work, when reflecting on his life, Norman emphasizes his extraordinary good luck, a sentiment Anne and Collas shared.
Norman began his life with a pleasant childhood in Berkshire, excelling in art and apprenticing as a sign painter after secondary school, Collas explained. He “would have probably pursued that career, except that in 1940, he was conscripted into the British Army and assigned to an anti-tank artillery unit.”
Stationed in India on the way to Burma, Norman passed an examination, thanks in part to his talent and training in art, to join a Survey of India. He then contracted amoebic dysentery, but his luck turned around when a doctor took an interest in him and persuaded his commanding officer to release him to the survey for medical reasons.
“What might have been bad luck—eventually his unit was decimated in the jungles of Burma—turned out to be good luck for Norman,” Collas said. “He spent nine wonderful months in Simla, vacation spot of the Raj, training as a mapmaker.
“He spent the remainder of the war as a cartographer and traveled the entire subcontinent of India, practicing the art, skills and science that became the foundation of his scholarly career—and avoiding almost sure death in the jungles of Burma.
“Cartography literally saved his life.”
After the war, Norman became the Directorate of Overseas Surveys in London. He may have stayed, except in “another stroke of luck,” he met his future wife, Elizabeth McPherson, always known as “Betty.”
“They were drawn to each other by a shared interest in India, where Betty had grown up as the daughter of a medical missionary,” Collas said.
The couple married in London in 1947 and then took off for America.
“Norman’s good luck compounded in the United States,” Collas continued. “Betty’s family, now settled in Ohio where her father had a medical practice, were very welcoming and generous with their moral and financial support.”
Norman soon found employment as a cartographer at the University of Virginia. He was offered a full scholarship to complete his undergraduate education while continuing to work.
After graduating Phi Beta Kappa with an honors degree in 1954, he received a four-year, all-expenses-paid scholarship to pursue graduate training at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was awarded a Ph.D. in 1958.
In 1957, Norman chose UCLA partly because Betty preferred the warmer climate to Wisconsin and also he thought Los Angeles would be close to her “fond memories of India.”
It turned out to be another stroke of good fortune because UCLA was a growing university, and its geography department “flourished” while other departments he could have chosen declined.
A turning point came in Norman’s life when he recognized the importance of the work of Edmond Halley, a contemporary of Isaac Newton. His interest and research led him to be awarded the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 1962 and the opportunity to do eight months of research year in Europe, Anne explained.
“Research and directing were his forte,” Anne shared.
This opportunity allowed Norman and Betty to save his sabbatical salary and pay for a down payment for a house on Swarthmore a few years later in 1965.
“Betty was a founding member of Palisades Beautiful, the initial mission of which was to beautify public spaces, especially by planting street trees,” Collas said.
During the 1970s, Norman served on the Board of the Pacific Palisades Residents Association and offered professional expertise on mapping and environmental questions.
“He took special pleasure in a sequence of opportunities that came his way toward the end of his career,” Collas said.
In 1975, he was appointed president of the California Sir Francis Drake Commission by Governor and Palisadian Ronald Reagan.
“He was actually introduced to the Queen of England in that position,” Anne shared.
From 1980-88, Thrower became the director of the Clark Library, an exquisite collection of rare books on UCLA’s campus—one of the highlights of his career, Anne shared.
“In this role, he was able to invite and collaborate with many distinguished English scholars,” Collas said.
Around 1990, Thrower retired from the university.
“In those days, forced retirement was 70 years old,” explained Anne, but that did not stop him from writing extensively. He published several books, more than 200 scholarly articles and continued to serve on commissions.
He continued to share his life with Betty until her passing from cancer in 1997—a few months shy of their 50th wedding anniversary.
“Norman says that the only real stroke of bad luck in his life was losing Betty,” Collas said.
When Betty died, Thrower funded a memorial bench in her honor in the Native Plant Garden on Temescal Canyon.
Following his retirement, Norman continued to collect awards for his work, including the Helen Wallis Award by the International Map Collectors Society and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of America Geographers.
In 1999, after “retiring,” he became the Constantine Panunzio Distinguished Emeriti Award winner for being the most productive emeritus professor at UCLA.
In the more recent years, Norman continued to edit and add to his book, “Maps and Civilization,” improving the book to adapt to the computerization of cartography—all from his home in the Village.