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Norman Bethune
Dr Norman Bethune 1922
Born Henry Norman Bethune
(1890-03-04)March 4, 1890
Gravenhurst, Ontario, Canada
Died November 12, 1939(1939-11-12) (aged 49)
Tang County, Hebei, China
Education University of Toronto
Known for Developing mobile medical units, surgical instruments and a method for transporting blood for transfusions.

Henry Norman Bethune[pronunciation?] (March 4, 1890 – November 12, 1939; Chinese name: 白求恩(白求恩); pinyin: Bái Qiúēn) 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 a 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), the family patriarch, established the first Presbyterian congregation in Montreal and was one of the founders of the Presbyterian Church of Canada. 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 Ann Goodwin, an English immigrant to Canada. Both his parents were very religious. Although he was raised in a religious family, Norman was an atheist.[5] Norman grew up with a "fear of being mediocre", instilled into him by his emotionally strict father and domineering mother.[6]

Early life

Norman Bethune's birthplace, now Bethune Memorial House

Norman was born in Gravenhurst, Ontario on March 4, 1890. His birth certificate erroneously stated March 3.[7] 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 Canadian Army's 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.[6]

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.[8] In 1920 he met Frances Penny whom he married in 1923. After a one-year “Grand Tour” of Europe, during which they spent much of her 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. He sought treatment at the Trudeau Sanatorium in Saranac Lake, New York. At this time, Frances divorced Bethune and returned to her home in Scotland.

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.

In 1929 Bethune remarried Frances. They divorced again, for the final time, in 1933. In 1928 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.[8] From 1928 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.[9] He published 14 articles describing his innovations in thoracic technique.

Political activities

Bethune became increasingly 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. 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 to the right (c. 1936/37, Spain).

Shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, with the financial backing of the Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, Bethune went to Spain to offer his services to the government (Loyalist) forces. He arrived in Madrid on November 3.

Unable to find a place where he could be used as a surgeon, he seized on an idea which may have been inspired by his limited experience of administering blood transfusions as Head of Thoracic Surgery at the Sacred Heart Hospital in Montreal between 1932 and 1936. The idea was to set up a mobile blood transfusion service by which he could take blood donated by civilians in bottles to wounded soldiers near the front lines. Though Bethune's unit, the Servicio canadiense de transfusion de sangre, was not the first of its kind—a similar service had been set up in Barcelona by a Spanish haematologist, Dr. Frederic Duran I Jorda, and had been functioning since September—Bethune's Madrid-based unit covered a far wider area of operation.[10]

Bethune returned to Canada on June 6, 1937, where he went on a speaking tour to raise money and volunteers for the Spanish Civil War.

Shortly before leaving for Spain, Bethune wrote the following poem, published in the July 1937 edition of The Canadian Forum:

And the same pallid moon tonight,
Which rides so quietly, clear and high,
The mirror of our pale and troubled gaze
Raised to a cool Canadian sky.

Above the shattered Spanish troops
Last night rose low and wild and red,
Reflecting back from her illumined shield
The blood bespattered faces of the dead.

To that pale disc we raise our clenched fists,
And to those nameless dead our vows renew,
“Comrades, who fought for freedom and the future world,
Who died for us, we will remember you.”


Norman Bethune in China with Marshal Nie Rongzhen (centre) and an interpreter, 1938.

In January 1938 Bethune travelled to Yan'an in the Shanbei region of Shanxi province in China. There he joined the Chinese Communists led by Mao Zedong. 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.[11]

In China, Bethune performed emergency battlefield surgical operations on war casualties and established training for doctors, nurses and orderlies.[12] He did not distinguish between casualties.[13][14]

Bethune had 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?' "[15][16][17]

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.[18]

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.[19]

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".[20]

Statue of Bethune at Wanping Fortress, Beijing


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: 紀念白求恩),[21] 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 1960s.[22][23] Grateful of Bethune’s altruistic 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) "[24][25] [26]

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 in 1973 the manse in which he was born in Gravenhurst 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. In 2012, the Government of Canada opened a new visitor centre, to enhance the experience of visitors to the site.[27] The house is operated as a National Historic Site of Canada by Parks Canada. In August 2000, then-Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, who is of Chinese birth, visited Gravenhurst and unveiled a bronze statue of him erected by the town. It stands in front of the Opera House on the town's main street, Muskoka Road.

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.

A 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.[28]

On February 7, 2006, the city of Málaga, 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 Málaga 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 Málaga in February 1937." The ceremony also included 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 2007 Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival featured as its central theme a memorial to 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 an individual's outstanding contribution, heroic spirit and great humanitarianism in the medical field. The Norman Bethune Medal was established in 1991. Biannually, one to seven medical people in China received this award.[29]

Bethune in film and literature

Dr Bethune (Chinese: 白求恩大夫; pinyin: Bái Qiúēn Dàifu), 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.[30] 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,[31] 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 (诺尔曼·白求恩), 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.[32][33]

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 Bethune biographer, Roderick Stewart, has authored four books on Norman Bethune, including "Bethune," (1973), "The Canadians: Norman Bethune," (1974), "The Mind of Norman Bethune," (1990). And then in 2011, he co-authored with Sharon Stewart, "Phoenix: The Life of Norman Bethune." a book which Canadian author Michael Bliss, in his review in the "Globe and Mail," said, "should become the definitive basis for all serious discussion of Bethune." [34]

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.

Saskatchewan playwright Ken Mitchell's one-man play, Gone The Burning Sun (1991), is about Bethune's life and time in China.

The Secret History of the Intrepids, by D.K. Latta, is an Alternate History fantasy story imagining Norman Bethune, William Stephenson, Grey Owl and others as 1940s super heroes. It was published in the 2013 anthology, Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories.

See also


  1. Henry Norman Bethune. Encyclopedia of World Biography. Thomson Corporation.
  2. Wounds, 1939
  3. [1] Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
  4. [2] Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
  5. Larry Hannant (1998). The Politics of Passion: Norman Bethune's Writing and Art. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0-8020-0907-4. "Bethune was a communist and an atheist with a healthy contempt for his evangelical father." 
  6. 6.0 6.1 [3] CBC archives
  7. Roderick and Sharon Stewart, "Phoenix: The Life of Norman Bethune" page 7
  8. 8.0 8.1 MacLean, LD; Entin, MA (2000). "Norman Bethune and Edward Archibald: sung and unsung heroes". pp. 1746–1752. Digital object identifier:10.1016/S0003-4975(00)02043-9. PMID 11093539. 
  9. Canadian Medicine: Mobile Blood Banks at
  10. Roderick Stewart and Sharon Stewart, Phoenix: The Life of Norman Bethune, (Montreal, QC: McGill-Queens University Press, 201)p.163-176
  11. Edgar A Porter (1997). The People's Doctor: George Hatem and China's Revolution. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 115–118. ISBN 0-8248-1905-5. 
  12. [4] Alexander, C A, New York-tidewater chapters' history of military medicine award: The military odyssey of Norman Bethune, Military Medicine, April 1999
  13. Wounds, 1939. Essay.
  14. Taylor, Robert, America's Magic Mountain, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986. ISBN 0-395-37905-9
  15. "Patients, Practitioners, & Medical Care". 1979. PMC 1704189. 
  17. Ted Allan, Sydney Gordon. The Story of Doctor Norman Bethune pp. 130
  18. Porter (1997), p. 122-123.
  20. "Photographic history: Bethune's camera was gave to comrade Sha Fei". Zhao Junyi. 2010-09-08. 
  21. In Memory of Norman Bethune, Mao Zedong (letter)
  22. [5]
  23. [6]
  26. [{{Serve the People: Ethics of Medicine in China | url=}}
  27. New Visitor Centre at Bethune Memorial House Receives a Hero's Welcome
  28. Allan Hustak. "Statue of Bethune getting new home". The Gazette, Montreal. Retrieved December 3, 2007. 
  29. A brief introduction of Norman Bethune Medal by Xinhua News Agency in Chinese
  30. Brittain, Donald (1964). "Bethune". National Film Board of Canada. Retrieved 2009-03-05. 
  31. Ted Allan, Sydney Gordon. The Scalpel, the Sword: The Story of Dr. Norman Bethune. Revised edition published by McClelland & Stewart, 1989. ISBN 0-7710-0729-9
  32. Xinhua. "Sixty-seven years on, Canadian idealist moves China again". People's Daily Online. Retrieved September 1, 2006. 
  33. 《诺尔曼·白求恩》 at (Chinese). Descriptions of all 20 episodes with photographs. Retrieved 2012-07-11.
  34. "Phoenix: The Life of Norman Bethune Reviewed by Michael Bliss". 

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