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Norman Bethune: A family embarrassment?

In China, he's been a national hero since his death in 1939. But in his birthplace of Canada Dr. Norman Bethune was virtually unknown until the 1970s. His communist beliefs and unorthodox personality made him a controversial figure in Canada. His medical accomplishments, however, are irrefutable. Bethune cared for the wounded in wartorn Spain and China, and in the process revolutionized military medicine.

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Betty Cornell, Bethune's niece, remembers her uncle as a free spirit who encouraged people to do their own thing. She also remembers her family's utter embarrassment of uncle Norman in the days before Canada recognized him as a hero. "Of course, after he joined the Communist party, they were very embarrassed," she says in this 1973 TV interview. They even destroyed most of his mementoes, for fear of what might happen if the family was found with Communist items. 
. Betty Cornell was the daughter of Bethune's older sister Janet. Bethune had one other sibling, a brother named Malcolm. Bethune had no children.

. Bethune biographer Roderick Stewart has noted that Bethune was extremely fond of his three young nieces, Betty, Ruth and Joan. In Stewart's 1990 book The Mind of Norman Bethune, he includes a reproduction of an affectionate note Bethune wrote to Betty in 1927. Bethune obviously spent a lot of time on the childlike letter - he glued on amusing pictures from magazines, and even included a few drawings of his own (one of which was of Winnie the Pooh).

. Although Canada officially recognized Bethune in 1973, his communist affiliations were by no means accepted by all Canadians. In 1974, three Toronto men were arrested for unscrewing the bronze historical plaque from its stand in front of Bethune's former home, after a failed attempt to cut it down with a hacksaw. According to a Globe and Mail article, one of the men later said a memorial to a communist was "a slap in the face for all Canadians."
Medium: Radio
Program: As It Happens
Broadcast Date: Sept. 17, 1973
Guest(s): John Houston
Host: Harry Brown
Duration: 5:46

Last updated: February 10, 2012

Page consulted on August 28, 2014

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