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Norman Bethune: Heroism in China

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.

In 1938 Bethune joined a handful of Western doctors who were helping out in China, where a war with Japan was devastating the country. It was here that Bethune became a "hero" to the Chinese people.
In this CBC Radio clip, an American doctor who worked with Bethune in China describes Bethune's great impact on the country during his short time there.
. Japan invaded China in 1937, beginning the Second Sino-Japanese War.
. Once Bethune's Canadian speaking tour about the Spanish Civil War was over, he wanted to use his medical expertise to help with the communist cause elsewhere. China wasn't a Communist republic yet, but its Communist Party was a strong force in the nation. Since China's war wasn't as well publicized as Spain's, China wasn't getting as much outside help. Bethune believed China was where he was needed most.

. Bethune left for China in January 1938.
. Canadian nurse Jean Ewen, who was fluent in Chinese, accompanied Bethune to China. She acted as his nurse and interpreter.
. After Bethune spent several months helping out in various Chinese towns, Communist leader Mao Zedong requested a meeting with him. They met in March 1938 in Mao's cave dwelling, where their discussion lasted the entire night. In this meeting, Bethune emphasized the need for mobile medical units in China.

. Bethune was disappointed to learn his ambulant blood transfusion system couldn't really work in China, since there was little electricity for refrigeration and the road conditions were very poor. Instead, he and Mao agreed it would make sense to organize a mobile medical unit near the front using the same philosophy of doctors going to the soldiers, rather than vice versa. So on May Day in 1938, Bethune, Ewen and another Canadian doctor named Richard Brown left for the military border region of Chin-Ch'a-Chi.

. In addition to working with his mobile medical unit, Bethune took it upon himself to make other improvements to the country's medical system. The lack of electricity, medicines and instruments as well as the horrible sanitary conditions made this difficult, but he worked tirelessly to get things organized. Medical staff education, training and better sanitary conditions were among some of his major improvements.

. In a letter to a friend in August 1938, Bethune wrote about his happiness in China: "It is true that I am tired but I don't think I have been so happy for a long time. I am content. I am doing what I want to do."

. Bethune died on Nov. 12, 1939. He had been operating without gloves on. He cut his finger and refused to stop operating. His finger became badly infected and he subsequently died of septicaemia (blood poisoning).
. Altogether, Bethune had spent less than two years in China.

. After Bethune's death, Mao Zedong wrote an essay in December 1939 titled "In Memory of Norman Bethune." The essay praised Bethune's selfless spirit: "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."
. During China's Cultural Revolution (1966-1969), Mao's essay on Bethune was one of three tracts that everyone in the People's Republic of China was required to learn.

. In 1949, members of China's Nationalist party fled to Taiwan and Mao proclaimed the creation of the People's Republic of China. This was now a communist nation. As leader, Mao frequently used Bethune as a symbol of the selflessness he believed was necessary for a strong communist society.

. After being elevated to hero status by Mao, Bethune has been revered by the Chinese people ever since. Numerous statues and memorials were erected around China in his memory, including the 800-bed Norman Bethune International Peace Hospital (which includes a Bethune museum on the hospital grounds) and the Norman Bethune Medical School.
. Bethune is buried in the Cemetery of Martyrs in Shih-chia-chuang. Every year on the anniversary of his death, a ceremony is held at Bethune's tomb.
Medium: Radio
Program: CBC Sunday Night
Broadcast Date: Sept. 13, 1964
Guest(s): George Hatem
Reporter: Marjorie McEnaney
Duration: 3:13

Last updated: February 10, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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