Eugene Nordby, M.D.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024 7:37 pm

Eugene J. Nordby, M.D., distinguished orthopedic surgeon and prominent leader of the Norwegian-American community, died on Jan. 18, 2024, at home in Madison, Wis. He was 105.

A life-long resident of Wisconsin, Eugene Jorgen Nordby was born on April 30, 1918, in Abbotsford. He grew up in Baldwin, where he became that town’s first Eagle Scout. The son of Herman Preus Nordby and Lucile Korsrud Nordby, Dr. Nordby had four Norwegian grandparents. His paternal grandfather, Jorgen Nordby, was from Hardanger; his paternal grandmother, Rosina Preus, was the daughter of the accomplished Norwegian pioneers, Herman Amberg Preus and Carolina (Linka) Keyser Preus. Dr. Nordby’s ancestors included generations of Norwegian and Norwegian-American clergy and Lutheran church leaders.

Graduating cum laude from Luther College in Decorah in 1939, and marrying Olive Jensen in 1941, Dr. Nordby earned his M.D. from the University of Wisconsin Medical School in 1943, followed by an internship and orthopedic surgery training at Madison General Hospital. During and following World War II, Dr. Nordby was a battlefield Army surgeon in Okinawa and Korea with the rank of Captain in the Medical Corps. When he returned to the States in 1947, he practiced at Madison General, serving for several years as chief of medical staff. He was the first physician elected to that hospital’s board of directors.

In the early 1950s, Dr. Nordby established an innovative, private practice with Dr. H. Lewis Greene. Up through about 1955, many of their cases were polio patients. Doctors Nordby and Greene extended their practice into much of southern Wisconsin, visiting many small towns not served by orthopedic surgeons. Dr. Nordby also served as an associate clinical professor at UW’s Medical School. Later, Dr. Nordby pioneered the use of enzymes to repair ruptured discs, a method that he taught to thousands of other physicians.  Dr. Nordby established a group practice in Madison, Bone and Joint Surgery Associates, from which he retired in 1981.

In 1987, Dr. Nordby founded and became first executive director of the International Intradiscal Therapy Society.  He later became that organization’s director emeritus and was honored in 1993 with the creation of the Eugene J. Nordby Research Award.

With his career as one of the leading orthopedic surgeons of his day and Diplomate of the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery, Dr. Nordby also was a founder, leader, and member of many state and national orthopedic organizations.  He played an important role in the Wisconsin Medical Society and American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, and also served on the board of Wisconsin Physician Services Health Solutions for 55 years, including 30 years as its board chair.  In 1998, WPS renamed its headquarters building in honor of Dr. Nordby, celebrating his 40 years of service.

During their marriage of more than seven decades, Dr. Nordby and his wife, Olive, were among the most active leaders of the Norwegian-American community. In 1964, Dr. Nordby began board service for Luther College’s Norwegian American Museum (later called Vesterheim) in Decorah, Iowa. He was elected board president in 1968 and served in that role until 1997 when he became president emeritus. During his 30-year tenure, Dr. Nordby led the phenomenal growth of the museum, achieving its accreditation in 1972, restoring its main building and moving and expanding other historic structures, adding thousands of artifacts, and hiring a professional staff. At the museum’s total independence from Luther in 1990, Dr. Nordby presided over the finest and most comprehensive collection of Norwegian-American immigrant folk and fine art and artifacts in America.

As Dr. Nordby became Honorary Trustee of the museum in 1998, he was honored as one who “truly stands alone in the annals of Vesterheim.”  It has been said that “because of him and a handful of others, its future as a great American museum is assured.”

While growing Vesterheim, the Nordbys encouraged their friend, Madisonian Gerhard Naeseth, in the creation of a library in Madison for Norwegian-American genealogical research. This Norwegian American Genealogical Center & Naeseth Library, began as a part of Vesterheim, but became an independent non-profit in 2007.

In 1978, inspired by the example of the Minneapolis Torske Klubben, Dr. Nordby became the founder of the Madison Torske Klubben, a luncheon group of men who share Norwegian-American heritage and a sense of camaraderie.  He served as its president (“boss”) for twenty years, and as boss emeritus since 1998. Nordby once wrote that the club was “founded on the common interest in poached codfish and congeniality.”

Long-time members of Madison’s Bethel Lutheran Church, the Nordbys also were members and leaders of many Norwegian heritage groups, including the Gudrid Reading Circle, Ydrasil Literary Society, and the Norwegian American Historical Association.  Dr. Nordby became a popular speaker at many of his professional and heritage associations; he enjoyed a wide reputation for his dry humor and deadpan joke delivery, which earned him the moniker “the Bob Hope of orthopedics” among his colleagues.

Dr. and Mrs. Nordby made more than 25 trips to Norway and developed friendships with several generations of the Norwegian royal family. They visited King Olav V and later King Harald V and Queen Sonja during their annual trips to Norway and during the periodic visits of the Norwegian royals to the United States.  In 1979, in recognition of Dr. Nordby’s promotion of closer ties between Norway and America, he was knighted by King Olav V Knight First Class of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav.

After Mrs. Nordby’s death in 2014, Dr. Nordby regularly attended meetings of his many clubs and associations and dined out frequently with family and friends. He was always on the go and when he finally put away his car keys, he never lacked for a volunteer to drive him wherever he needed to go. Olive had ruled the kitchen, but after her passing, a 90-something Dr. Nordby took to cooking and discovered a love for baking Norwegian delicacies.  He played bottle pool a couple days a week, frequently besting opponents who were younger and had both eyes. His great joy was spending summer months watching the Brewers and fishing with his son, Jon, at the family’s cottages on Holy Island, Long Lake, in Washburn County.

Dr. Nordby was a fan of whatever sport was in season, and always rooted for his Wisconsin teams. In 2018, during his centenary year, Dr. Nordby was honored by the Green Bay Packers and WPS Health Solutions in a “100 Seasons Tribute” at Lambeau Field. He waved to the crowd from the 50-yard line, appeared on the Jumbotron screen and enjoyed all of the comforts a private-box afforded on that special day.  The Wisconsin State Journal observed that Dr. Nordby was “alive for every pass, win, loss, and Super Bowl victory by the Packers…”

When asked about the secret of his longevity, Dr. Nordby often responded: “A good life partner and a glass of red wine every day.” He was making dear friends to the end, and it is likely that the eclectic group of folks he befriended is responsible for the length and quality of his life.

Dr. Nordby is survived by his son, Dr. Jon J. Nordby, and daughter-in-law, Kim Nordby, University Place, Washington.  In lieu of flowers, it is suggested that memorials be made in his memory to Vesterheim or the Norwegian American Genealogical Center & Naeseth Library.

Services are being planned for the summer; the family intends to have one in Madison at Bethel Lutheran Church, and one up north at Long Lake Lutheran Church.

Online condolences may be made at www.gundersonfh.com.

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