National Treasure #135: Norman Bethune

OK, he was a Communist. That part doesn’t look so good. Of course, being born in 1890 he came of age when fascism was seen as a threat to democracy, and before Soviet atrocities occurred. He died before Chinese Communists even gained the totalitarian power that they then abused. So let’s park the communism thing for a minute.

Norman Bethune was a physician and thoracic surgeon who could see the socioeconomic factors underlying disease, and gave free medical help to the poor in Montreal.

He was a medical innovator, whose Bethune Rib Shears are still in use today. Nor did he just like to take chances with other folks: he insisted on undergoing a radical new treatment for tuberculosis when he himself contracted it.

He married – and divorced – the same woman twice. (Just checking?)

After providing battlefield surgical services during the Spanish Civil War, he joined the Chinese Communists in 1938. After his 1939 death from blood poisoning, he was given a People’s Hero burial in China. In Canada, his birthplace is a National Historic Site.

In China, Bethune performed emergency battlefield surgical operations on war casualties and established training for doctors, nurses, and orderlies. He did not distinguish between casualties. – Wikipedia

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?’ – Norman Bethune

Not distinguishing between battlefield casualties? Focused on how best to serve? If you’d like to read more about this complex Canadian Communist, check these out:

Canadian Encyclopedia

Dictionary of Canadian Biography

Canadian Medical Hall of Fame

And for the view that he shouldn’t be worshipped (I’m down with that), check out this Toronto Sun article. I sure don’t agree with Bethune’s politics, but I respect him for putting himself on the line for his convictions.


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4 Responses to National Treasure #135: Norman Bethune

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    There’s an interesting episode in Munroe Scott’s McClure: The China Years. Like Bethune, McClure was a medical doctor. Bethune served the communist side in China; McClure was firmly committed to the Chiang Kai Shek side. McClure was given control of the allied forces’ pharmaceutical and medical supplies, for all of China. At one point, when Bethune was floundering in mud, plagued by fever, desperately short of drugs, McClure passed by only a few miles away. Munroe Scott notes the irony — the one man who could have supplied what Bethune needed was a fellow Canadian… and the two never made contact.
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – I didn’t know that story – or much about McClure, either. I knew him as the Moderator of the United Church when I was 16.

  2. Barry says:

    The museum in Gravenhurst is well worth the stop. There are a lot of tributes from Chinese individuals.
    The other stop, that I have missed so far, is to the Norwegian pilots.

    Norwegian Training in Canada during the Second World War National Historic Event (NHS)
    Gravenhurst, Ontario
    Illustrates the importance of the Alliance of free nations with armed forces from occupied Europe against the Axis

    Bethune House (FHB)
    Gravenhurst, Ontario

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