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Norman Bethune

Henry Norman Bethune (March 4, 1890 – November 12, 1939; Chinese name: ; pinyin: B i Qi n) was a Canadian physician and medical innovator. Bethune is best known for his service in war time medical units during the Spanish Civil War and with the Communist Eighth Route Army (Ba Lu Jun) during the Second Sino-Japanese War. He developed the first mobile blood-transfusion service in Spain in 1936.[1] A Communist, he wrote that wars were motivated by profits, not principles.[2]


Family history

Dr. Norman Bethune came from a prominent Scottish Canadian family. His great great grandfather, the Reverend John Bethune (1751 1815), was the family patriarch and established the first Presbyterian Church in Montreal. Norman Bethune s great grandfather, Angus Bethune (1783 1858), joined the North West Company at an early age and travelled extensively throughout the north western territories, exploring and trading for furs. He eventually reached the Pacific at Fort Astoria, Oregon. He became chief factor of the Lake Huron district for the Hudson's Bay Company after the merger of the rival companies. Upon retirement from the HBC in 1839 he successfully ran for Alderman of Toronto City Council.[3]

Norman s grandfather, also named Norman (1822 92), was educated as a doctor at King's College, University of Toronto, and in London, England at Guy's Hospital, graduating in 1848 as a member of the Royal College of Physicians. Upon his return to Canada, he became one of the founders of the Upper Canada School of Medicine,[4] which was incorporated into Trinity College, Toronto and eventually the University of Toronto.

Norman s father, the Rev. Malcolm Nicolson Bethune, led an uneventful life as a small town pastor, initially at Gravenhurst, Ontario 1889-92. His mother s name was Elizabeth. Both his parents were very religious. Norman grew up with a "fear of being mediocre", instilled into him by his emotionally strict father and domineering mother.[5]

Early life

Norman Bethune's birth place, now Bethune Memorial House

Norman was born in Gravenhurst, Ontario on March 4, 1890. His birth certificate erroneously stated March 3.[6] His siblings were his sister Janet, and brother Malcolm.

As a youth he attended Owen Sound Collegiate Institute in Owen Sound, Ontario, now known as Owen Sound Collegiate and Vocational Institute (OSCVI). He graduated from OSCVI in 1907. In September 1909 he enrolled at the University of Toronto. He interrupted his studies for one year in 1911 to be a volunteer labourer-teacher with Frontier College at remote lumber and mining camps throughout northern Ontario, teaching immigrant mine labourers how to read and write English.

In 1914 when World War I was declared in Europe, he once again suspended his medical studies. In a flourish of patriotism he joined the No. 2 Field Ambulance to serve as a stretcher-bearer in France. He was wounded by shrapnel and spent three months recovering in an English hospital. When he had recuperated from his injuries he returned to Toronto to complete his medical degree. He received his M.D. in 1916.[5]

Personal life

In 1917, with the war still in progress, Bethune joined the Royal Navy as a Surgeon-Lieutenant at the Chatham Hospital in England. In 1919, he began an internship specializing in children's diseases at The Hospital for Sick Children at Great Ormond Street, London. Later he went to Edinburgh, where he earned the FRCS qualification at the Royal College of Surgeons.[7] In 1920 he met the strikingly beautiful Frances Penny. They were complete opposites; she was a subdued introvert; he was a brash extrovert, but in spite of this they married in 1923. After a one-year Grand Tour of Europe, during which they spent her entire inheritance, they moved to Detroit, Michigan, where Bethune took up private practice and also took a part-time job as an instructor at the Detroit College of Medicine and Surgery.

In 1926 Bethune contracted tuberculosis due to overwork and from his close contact with the sick. He sought treatment at the Trudeau Sanatorium in Saranac Lake, New York. Believing he was dying, he insisted his wife divorce him and return to her native Scotland, so she did.

In the 1920s the established treatment for TB was total bed rest in a sanatorium. While convalescing Bethune read about a radical new treatment for tuberculosis called pneumothorax. This involved artificially collapsing the tubercular (diseased) lung, thus allowing it to rest and heal itself. The physicians at the Trudeau thought this procedure was too new and risky. But Bethune insisted. He had the operation performed and made a full and complete recovery.

Upon recuperation Bethune immediately wrote to his ex-wife and proposed marriage again. At first she refused but eventually he and Frances were remarried in 1929. This marriage did not survive, and they were divorced again for a final time in 1933.

In 1929 Bethune joined the thoracic surgical pioneer, Dr. Edward William Archibald, the Surgeon-in-Chief of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, the teaching hospital affiliated with McGill University.[7] From 1929 to 1936 Bethune perfected his skills in thoracic surgery and developed or modified more than a dozen new surgical tools. His most famous instrument was the Bethune Rib Shears, which still remains in use today.[8] He published 14 articles describing his innovations in thoracic technique.

Political activities

Bethune became increasingly disillusioned with surgical treatment and concerned with the socioeconomic aspects of disease. As a concerned doctor in Montreal during the economic depression years of the 1930s, Bethune frequently sought out the poor and gave them free medical care. He challenged his professional colleagues and agitated, without success, for the government to make radical reforms of medical care and health services in Canada.

Bethune was an early proponent of socialized medicine and formed the Montreal Group for the Security of People's Health. In 1935 Bethune travelled to the Soviet Union to observe first hand their system of health care. During this year he became a committed communist and joined the Communist Party of Canada. He at first was not convinced communism was the answer to the world's problems however, when returning from the Spanish civil war to raise support for the Loyalist cause, he openly identified with the communist cause.

Spanish Civil War

Canadian Blood Transfusion Unit which operated during the Spanish Civil War. Dr Norman Bethune is at the right. ca. 1936/37, Spain

The next year, 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out. Bethune accepted an invitation from the Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy to head the Canadian Medical Unit in Madrid. He joined the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion which was composed of Canadian communists and other leftists and set off for Madrid on November 3, 1936.

A frequent cause of death on the battlefield is medical shock brought on by loss of blood. A casualty whose wounds do not appear life-threatening suddenly dies. Bethune conceived the idea of administering blood transfusions on the spot. He developed the world's first mobile medical unit. The unit contained dressings for 500 wounds, and enough supplies and medicine for 100 operations. Bethune organized a service to collect blood from donors and deliver it to the battlefront, thereby saving countless lives. Bethune's work in Spain in developing mobile medical units was a precursor to the later development of Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) units.

Bethune returned to Canada on June 6, 1937, where he went on a speaking tour to raise money and volunteers for the anti-fascist battle raging in Spain.

When he was in Spain, he wrote poetry. One of his most well-known poems was published in the 1937 July issue of Canadian Forum magazine:


Norman Bethune in China, the middle was Marshal Nie Rongzhen, the right was the translator, in 1938.

In January 1938 Bethune travelled to Yan'an in the Shanbei region of Shaanxi province in China. There he joined the Chinese Communists led by Mao Zedong in their struggle against the Japanese invaders. The Lebanese-American doctor George Hatem who had come to Yan'an earlier was instrumental in helping Bethune get started at his task of organizing medical services for the front and the region.[9]

In China, Bethune performed emergency battlefield surgical operations on war casualties and established training for doctors, nurses and orderlies.[10] He did not distinguish between casualties [11][12]

Bethune have thoughts of medicinal disciplines and states : " Medicine, as we are practising it, is a luxury trade. We are selling bread at the price of jewels. ... Let us take the profit, the private economic profit, out of medicine, and purify our profession of rapacious individualism ... Let us say to the people not ' How much have you got?' but ' How best can we serve you?' "[13][14][15]

In the summer of 1939 Bethune was appointed the Medical Advisor to the Jin-Cha-Ji (Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei) Border Region Military District, under the direction of General Nie Rongzhen.[16]

Stationed with the Communist Party of China's Eighth Route Army in the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Bethune cut his finger while operating on a soldier. Probably due to his weakened state, he contracted septicaemia (blood poisoning) and died of his wounds on November 12, 1939.[17]

His last will in China was recorded shortly before his death, reading: "Dear Commander Nie, Today I feel really bad. Probably I have to say farewell to you forever! Please send a letter to Tim Buck the General Secretary of Canadian Communist Party. Address is No.10, Wellington Street, Toronto, Canada. Please also make a copy for Committee on International Aid to China and Democratic Alliance of Canada, tell them, I am very happy here... Please give my Kodak Retina II camera to comrade Sha Fei. Norman Bethune, 04:20pm, November 11th, 1939".[18]

Statue of Bethune at Wanping Fortress, Beijing

Political motivation

The Communist Party of Canada says that Bethune, who joined the party in 1935, acted out of devotion to the Spanish and Chinese Communist movements. Larry Hannant, Bethune's biographer, says Bethune specifically refused to work under Chiang Kai Shek's Nationalist government and insisted on helping the Chinese Communists instead. In them, Hanant continues, Bethune found a movement and a people that satisfied his ideal of communism, with a hatred of Japanese militarism, a love for the Communists' allies around the world who shared their struggle, and a lack of personal vanity and ambition. Hannant goes on to speculate that "even as they fulfilled his ideal image of communism," the Chinese Communists also gratified his own bourgeois ego they revered him."[19]


Reverend Malcolm Bethune's study in Gravenhurst (father of Norman).

Virtually unknown in his homeland during his lifetime, Bethune received international recognition when Chairman Mao Zedong of the People's Republic of China published his essay entitled In Memory of Norman Bethune (in Chinese: ),[20] which documented the final months of the doctor's life in China. Almost the entire Chinese population knew about the essay which had become required reading in China's elementary schools during the 1960's.[21] Grateful of Bethune s altruism help to China, the nation's normal elementary school text book still has the essay today:

" Comrade Bethune s spirit, his utter devotion to others without any thought of self, was shown in his great sense of responsibility in his work and his great warm-heartedness towards all comrades and the people ... We must all learn the spirit of absolute selflessness from him. With this spirit everyone can be very useful to the people. A man s ability may be great or small, but if he has this spirit, he is already noble-minded and pure, a man of moral integrity and above vulgar interests, a man who is of value to the people (In Memory of Bethune, Mao 1939, pp. 337 338) "[22][23] [24]

Bethune is one of the few Westerners to whom China has dedicated statues, of which many have been erected in his honour throughout the country. He is buried in the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery, Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, China, where his tomb and memorial hall lie opposite the tomb of Dwarkanath Kotnis, an Indian doctor also honoured for his humanitarian contribution to the Chinese. One of the three honoured in this memorial is the hero of the Academy Award winning film, Chariots of Fire, Reverend Eric Liddell of Scotland. He died while incarcerated in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Shandong Province.

Elsewhere in China, Norman Bethune University of Medical Sciences, founded in Changchun, Jilin and later merged into Jilin University as Norman Bethune College of Medicine, is named after him. He is also commemorated at three institutions in Shijiazhuang - Bethune Military Medical College, Bethune Specialized Medical College and Bethune International Peace Hospital. In Canada, Bethune College at York University, and Dr. Norman Bethune Collegiate Institute (a secondary school) in Scarborough, Ontario, are named after him.

The former Bethune Memorial House Visitor Centre in Gravenhurst, taken down in May 2011.

The Government of Canada purchased the manse in which he was born in Gravenhurst in 1973 following the visit of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to China. The previous year Dr. Bethune had been declared a Person of National Historic Significance. In 1976 the restored building was opened to the public as Bethune Memorial House. The house is operated as a National Historic Site of Canada by Parks Canada. In August 2000, then Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, who has Chinese ancestry, visited the house. On that same occasion she unveiled a bronze statue of him erected by the town of Gravenhurst. It stands in front of the Opera House on the town's main street.

In March 1990, to commemorate the centenary of his birth, Canada and China each issued two postage stamps of the same design in his honour.

In 1998, Bethune was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame located in London, Ontario.

Bethune statue]] in Montreal's Norman Bethune Square.

The city of Montreal, Quebec, has created a public square and erected a statue of him in his honour, located near the Guy-Concordia Metro station.[25]

On February 7, 2006, the city of M laga, Spain opened the Walk of Canadians in his memory. This avenue, which runs parallel to the beach "Crow Rock" direction to Almeria, paid tribute to the solidarity action of Dr. Norman Bethune and his colleagues who helped the population of M laga during the Spanish Civil War. During the ceremony, a commemorative plaque was unveiled with the inscription: "Walk of Canadians - In memory of aid from the people of Canada at the hands of Norman Bethune, provided to the refugees of M laga in February 1937". The ceremony also conducted a planting of an olive tree and a maple tree representative of Spain and Canada, symbols of friendship between the two peoples.

A celebration was scheduled for October 13 in honour of the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Canada and the People s Republic of China and on the occasion of the opening of the exhibition Life of Norman Bethune .

The Norman Bethune Medal is the highest medical honour in China, bestowed by the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Personnel of China, to recognize individual's outstanding contributions, heroic spirit and great humanitarian in the medical field. The Norman Bethune Medal was established in 1991. Biyearly one to seven medical people in China received this award.[26]

Bethune in film and literature

Dr Bethune (), one of the most successful Chinese films, was made in 1964; Gerald Tannebaum (), an American humanitarian, played Bethune.

Bethune was the subject of a 1964 National Film Board of Canada documentary Bethune, directed by Donald Brittain.[27] The film includes interviews with many people close to Bethune, including his biographer Ted Allan.

Donald Sutherland played Bethune in the 1974-75 television show Witness to Yesterday hosted by Patrick Watson, produced by Arthur Veronka and sponsored by Shell Canada Limited. Sutherland's portrayal of Bethune was eerily compelling and (likely) led to him playing Bethune in two films.

Donald Sutherland played Bethune in two biographical films: Bethune (1977), made for television on a low budget, and Bethune: The Making of a Hero (1990). The latter, based on a 1952 book The Scalpel, The Sword; The Story Of Doctor Norman Bethune by Ted Allan and Sydney Gordon,[28] was a co-production of Telefilm Canada, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, FR3 TV France and China Film Co-production.

In the CBC's The Greatest Canadian program in 2004, he was voted the 26th Greatest Canadian by viewers.

In 2006 China Central Television produced a 20-part drama series, Dr. Norman Bethune, documenting his life, which with a budget of yuan 30 million (US$3.75 million) was the most expensive Chinese TV series to date. The series is directed by Yang Yang and stars Canadian actor Trevor Hayes.[29]

The 2006 novel The Communist's Daughter, by Dennis Bock, is a fictionalized account of Bethune's life.

Adrienne Clarkson, a Chinese-Canadian and former Governor General, wrote a biography of Bethune for Penguin Canada's best-selling Extraordinary Canadians series and tells his story in the companion documentary 'Adrienne Clarkson on Norman Bethune'.

The book of short stories, Cottage Gothic, by Martin Avery, contains fictionalized accounts of Bethune's life, particularly in the story "Chinese Gold", which also appeared in Best Canadian Stories. Both books were published by Oberon Press.

The television miniseries Canada: A People's History, by CBC, briefly mentioned Bethune's story during the episode describing Canadians in the Spanish Civil War.

Rod Langley wrote a play entitled Bethune in 1973, which covers Bethune's life from his move to Detroit, Michigan to his death. It was this play on which the 1977 Donald Sutherland film was based.

The character Jerome Martell in Hugh MacLennan's novel The Watch That Ends the Night is generally thought to have been inspired by Bethune, a claim MacLennan denied.

See also


External links

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