Norman Bethune: a Canadian Hero in China
Norman Bethune was born in Graven Hurst, Ontario, Canada in 1890. His family had a long history of human service, a fact that undoubtedly shaped his life in later years. From the outset, as a young university student, he developed a mission, or goal in life, of compassion and commitment to helping the less fortunate to find freedom from the chains of poverty. In earnest, he developed a selflessness that dominated his whole life, but not without personal sacrifice. He was in a troubled marriage that consequently ended in divorce. Progressive medicine and humanitarian deeds became the sole purposes of his life. Understandably, his much younger wife, Frances, could not tolerate this situation.
From 1911to 1912, Bethune worked as a lumberjack and teacher in a remote area of Ontario. He taught at “Frontier College”, a unique school that provided basic education to adult workers at the lumber camps.
During the First World War, he became a stretcher-bearer . He, himself, was wounded by shrapnel . He was confined, as a patient, to hospitals for months, receiving therapy and recuperating from his injuries.
After the war, he completed his internship at the hospital for sick children in London, England, leading to a certificate as “A Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons”.
Later, in the United States, Bethune came in contact with poverty and deprivation, but his skills as a doctor also attracted wealthy patients who were willing to pay for services usually denied to the poor. He began to appreciate how money was corrupting the medical system. He developed an acute concern for the unattended medical needs and suffering among the poor. His mission was to relieve, as much as he could, the plight of the less fortunate. He was appalled at the indifference shown by governments to these conditions. It was at his time that his own health suffered a setback. He had developed tuberculosis of the left lung and had to undergo a successful but dangerous operation. This episode with his health had a tremendous impact on his life. It stimulated an interest in thoracic medicine, especially the surgical aspects in this field and for a couple of years he worked at a tuberculosis hospital in the United States.
Following this interval in the United States, in 1929, he began to specialize in thoracic medicine at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. He also began to write in medical journals, outlining new surgical techniques. Later, he invented developed and refined surgical instruments.
In 1935, he journeyed to the Soviet Union to attend the International Physiological Congress. The Communist Parties of Canada and the United States had made arrangements for him to go. By this time, Bethune had become a member of the Communist Party of Canada. Returning to Canada, he was convinced, more than ever, that democratic societies needed to develop publicly financed health care for all of their citizens. Bethune had earlier set up a free medical clinic in Montreal. His conscience dictated that he should work for this goal.
The Struggle of the Spanish Republic against Fascist aggression took him to Spain for a medical adventure and challenge. In Madrid, he pioneered a mobile blood transfusion unit in the field. He collected blood, which was then transported to where it was needed for the wounded along the 600-mile battlefront. These efforts were reported to have reduced deaths from war by up to 75%. Thousands of people owed their lives to Dr. Bethune. His bedside manner became legendary, and it was another measure of this man.
He returned to Canada to go on a speaking tour to raise money for humanitarian efforts among the Spanish people. During this circuit of speaking engagements, Bethune elaborated eloquently on the desperate needs of these people. His ability to communicate effectively made this tour a success. His undisputed talents were attracting widespread attention. Dr. Bethune became the ultimate international volunteer to help less fortunate people whatever he could.
In the meantime, Japan was resuming its aggression against China. The decade of the 1930’s was the era of Fascist aggression throughout the world. Bethune’s knowledge of the long history of western aggression and exploitation in China made him conclude that his services were needed there.
In January 1938, he sailed to Mainland China. He stated that he refused to condone wars which greedy men make against others. He went on to say that Spain and China respectively were parts of the same battle . The Japanese had chased the Chinese into the northwest part of the latter’s country. Mao Tsedung met Bethune only once, but they remained acquaintances by correspondence.
Bethune almost immediately set out for the hazardous surroundings of the mountain ranges of Yen an. In the company of the Eighth Route Army, Bethune practiced his profession as best as he could. There were no mobile units and there was a desperate need to recruit medical trainees and convey his knowledge and skills to meet the needs of the soldiers. Consequently, there was an urgent requirement for illustrated medical manuals.
Both soldiers and peasants required a good deal of medical attention. Again, under very trying conditions, and with a lot of nerve, determination and courage, Bethune and his crew of Chinese assistants were eventually able to establish and coordinate over twenty medical and nursing teaching hospitals. Because of shortages of personnel and other difficulties, Bethune himself routinely operated for days without reasonable breaks. In one period, he worked continually for sixty-nine hours on a total of one hundred and fifteen patients. His ability to endure such hard conditions and retain his sanity was little short of a miracle. It was under these conditions that his life became abruptly doomed. In October of 1939, possible suffering from extreme fatigue, he accidentally cut his left hand with the blade of his scalpel. Without proper medical supplies and with germs everywhere, his hand became infected and blood poisoning spread. He died on November 12, 1939.
Dr. Norman Bethune’s stature became even greater in death. The affection of the Chinese people for him swelled Emotions ran high upon the news of his death. His capacity to move people, and his insight into humanity was never so evident as during this period. The Chinese people were extremely grateful that such a man had crossed their paths.
During this solemn time, tributes to Bethune came from many parts of the world. He was described as an activist, a writer, a teacher, an administrator, and above all, a great doctor. Mao said of him, “… We must all learn the spirit of absolute selflessness from him.”
After a very simple funeral, as he, had requested, Dr. Norman Bethune was buried in the Mausoleum of the Martyrs in Shih Chia Chuang, southeast of Beijing. The Chinese named a medical school and a hospital in his memory. Many other memorials have been erected in his memory over the years.
One ironic tragedy of all of this was that, up until 1973, Dr. Bethune had never received much recognition from his native country of Canada. Furthermore, he was not even acknowledged for his accomplishments, presumably because of his communist connection. In 1973, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, another Canadian who had spent a good deal of time in China in his earlier years, convinced his Government to purchase the Bethune house in Graven Hurst, Ontario, and dedicated it as “Bethune Memorial House”.
Dr. Bethune’s impact on medicine was not singular. His career was very comprehensive, as noted above, as he attained an extraordinary list of accomplishments of highest merit. Among his many goals, was one goal that was not fulfilled until after his death? In 1938, while in china, he recommended a universal health system for Canada. Ironically, Donald Sutherland, the Canadian actor who played Bethune in the movie about the latter’s life, called “Bethune: the Making of a Hero”, had been married to the daughter of Douglas. Douglas, when he was the Socialist Premier of Saskatchewan, a western province in Canada, set up a social medicine scheme in his province. Later, in the 1960’s, as a Member of Parliament in the national government, Douglas Played a significant role in establishing a national health system. He later became known as the father of Canada’s Medicare system, as it was eventually called.
Bethune is probably best known for his introduction of the mobile blood bank to the battlefield, and giving blood transfusions in the midst of heavy fighting. China worships him almost as a saint. Upon his death, the Chinese gave him a fond farewell. The charity of his soul still lives on among many Chinese. As Canadian teachers in China, we are often greeted by Chinese people, who make references of praise to this Great Canadian Doctor and humanitarian. Unfortunately, many Canadians know little about the incredible work for humanity undertaken by this remarkable man. This decent, in many ways, simple man was, indeed, one of the great world ambassadors who fought for the poor and less fortunate.
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