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Norman Bethune: The early years

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.

As the son of a Presbyterian minister in Gravenhurst, Ont., young Norman Bethune grew up with "a fear of being mediocre." In this 1964 radio clip, CBC journalist Marjorie McEnaney explores the early years of Canada's Dr. Norman Bethune. Through interviews with people who knew the doctor, McEnaney reveals Bethune's early training in medicine, his battle with tuberculosis, and his "tempestuous union" with his strikingly beautiful wife Frances.  
• Journalist Marjorie McEnaney decided to put together this report after taking a trip to China. She was surprised to find that a Canadian doctor named Norman Bethune was revered in China as a saint, even though in 1964 most Canadians had no idea who Bethune was.

• Norman Bethune was born on March 3, 1890, in Gravenhurst, Ont. His full name was Henry Norman Bethune.
• His father, Malcolm Nicolson Bethune, was a Presbyterian minister.
• Bethune went to the University of Toronto in 1909 to study physiological and biochemical science. But the First World War interrupted his studies, as Bethune left school to become a stretcher-bearer in France in 1915.
• He was wounded by shrapnel in his knee that spring, and returned home to Canada later that fall.

• Bethune soon went back to U of T and completed his studies. He graduated with a bachelor of medicine in December 1916. Dr. Frederick Banting, one of the discoverers of insulin, was in Bethune's graduating class.
• 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 London's Hospital for Sick Children.

• Bethune met a young Scottish woman named Frances Penney in London during the fall of 1920. They fell in love and married in 1923. They were complete opposites -- she was a subdued introvert; he was a brash extrovert.

• After the wedding the couple went on a trip through continental Europe, where Bethune demonstrated his spendthrift ways. One much-retold incident occurred when they had run out of money in Vienna, so Bethune got a friend to wire him emergency money. But on his way home from collecting the money, he spent it all on a piece of fine China that he saw in an art shop. Frances was not pleased.

• When the honeymoon was over, the couple moved to Detroit. Bethune began practicing medicine there, and also got a part-time job as an instructor at the Detroit College of Medicine and Surgery.
• While in Detroit, the overworked Bethune came down with tuberculosis in 1926. For treatment, he checked into the Trudeau Sanatorium, located in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York.
• Bethune and his wife divorced in 1927 while he was still at the sanatorium.

• In the sanatorium, Bethune began to read a lot about a radical new operation for tuberculosis called pneumothorax. This involved artificially collapsing the tubercular (diseased) lung, thus allowing it to rest. The physicians at the Trudeau thought this procedure was way too new and risky to be performed on Bethune (there was a great chance that they could puncture a lung in the process). But Bethune strongly insisted, exclaiming, "Gentlemen, I welcome the risk!"

• The pneumothorax operation was successful. Two months later, Bethune left the Trudeau in good health in late 1927.
• Bethune and his ex-wife Frances were remarried in 1929. This didn't last long, however. They were divorced again for a final time in 1933. The two always kept in contact after this and remained genuinely fond of each other, but they were unable to live together peacefully.
Medium: Radio
Program: CBC Sunday Night
Broadcast Date: Sept. 13, 1964
Guest(s): Ted Allan, Georges Deshayes, Elizabeth Hercomb, Irene Kon, Marion Scott, Hazen Sise, Paul Weil
Reporter: Marjorie McEnaney
Duration: 4:57

Last updated: March 6, 2012

Page consulted on March 17, 2014

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