Norman Bethune: China's Hero

Rewind marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Dr. Norman Bethune. Surgeon, innovator, Communist and controversial Canadian, he is still probably better known in China than he is in his home country. His care for the wounded in revolutionary Spain and China is legendary....
Rewind marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Dr. Norman Bethune. Surgeon, innovator, Communist and controversial Canadian, he is still probably better known in China than he is in his home country.

His care for the wounded in revolutionary Spain and China is legendary.

His medical accomplishments revolutionized military medicine. He was a medical pioneer with personal flaws. And he's been a national hero in China since his death in 1939. But in his birthplace of Canada, Dr. Norman Bethune's communist beliefs and unorthodox personality made him a controversial figure.

On this show you hear how Bethune gave up his studies in medicine at the University of Toronto 100 years ago to go to war just as the First World War began. For the rest of his life he followed his passion, never shying away from conflict, whether personal or political.

As a young man he said, "I'm going to find something I can do for the human race, something great." And greatness he achieved, with ground breaking work in tuberculosis, as a proponent of medicare, fighter of fascism and the inventor of several important medical instruments.

Virtually Unknown
But even in 1964, a time when he was revered in China, Bethune was virtually unknown in Canada. CBC Radio journalist Marjorie McEnaney made a documentary to introduce him to Canadians.

In 1926 while working in Detroit he came down with tuberculosis. In order to treat it, he underwent a risky operation- which proved to be successful. Then while he was working at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, Bethune invented a number of surgical tools. Among them were his now famous "Bethune rib shears," inspired by a set of leather cutting shears he saw in a shoe repair shop. Surgeons still use them today.

Bethune in operating rooom

Bethune rib shears

The Rich Man Recovers and the Poor Man Dies
Bethune enjoyed a bohemian lifestyle, but he also became aware of the misery of the poor. As he said in 1932: "The rich man recovers and the poor man dies." Bethune advocated in free medical care for all. In 1935 he went to Russia and was impressed with its socialized medical system. When he returned home he promoted a similar system for Canada. But in a country that feared the spread of Communism, the reaction to his ideas on socialized medicine was generally hostile.

Bethune began exploring other Communist ideas and joined the Communist party in 1936. Shortly after, he went to Spain to provide medical care during that country's civil war.

In Spain Bethune was disturbed by the number of men dying of blood loss. He decided that if soldiers couldn't get to the blood supplies, they should bring blood to the soldiers.

His mobile blood transfusion system was simple but revolutionary: extract blood from volunteer donors in the cities, and deliver it to where it's needed.

Bethune in operating rooom

Bethune in operating rooom

In 1938 Bethune joined a handful of Western doctors in China, where the war with Japan was devastating the country. While there he met with the Communist leader Mao Zedong in a cave, where their discussion lasted the entire night. In addition to working with his mobile unit, Bethune made other improvements to China's medical system.

Altogether, Bethune spent less than two years in China. He died in November 1939. He had been operating without gloves and cut his finger. The finger became infected and he died of blood poisoning.

Drawing by Norman Bethune

Drawing by Norman Bethune

Of course Bethune's Communist beliefs didn't always go over well not only in his home country, but with his own family. His niece Betty Cornell remembered her uncle as a free spirit.

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.

Early 1970s
It was in the early 1970s that Canadians started to realize what a hero Bethune was in China.
In 1972 Barbara Frum talked to writer Ted Allan. He was a friend of Bethune's who had written a biography of him. After Bethune's death, Mao Zedong wrote an essay called "In Memory of Norman Bethune." He wrote "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 the Cultural Revolution, Mao's essay on Bethune was one of three tracts that everyone in the People's Republic of China was required to learn. Bethune has been revered by the Chinese people ever since. There are numerous statues and memorials in his memory in China, including the 800-bed Norman Bethune International Peace Hospital 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 his tomb.

Bethune Admirers Come to Canada
In 1970 the Trudeau government established diplomatic relations with China. As a result, Chinese officials were coming to Canada. Many of them were eager to visit the site of Bethune's boyhood home in Gravenhurst, Ontario. Problem was, there wasn't a lot to see. As it Happens talked to the man who lived at his former house.

The federal government spent three years restoring the building in order to turn it into a Bethune museum. In 1976, the Bethune Memorial House was opened to the public as a national historic site. 12,000 people visit the Bethune Memorial House each year- about 75 per cent of them of Chinese origin.

In 2000, the town of Gravenhurst erected a two-metre bronze statue of Bethune in the heart of the town. Gravenhurst also named a street, Bethune Drive, after its hometown hero.

The next piece was an interview from 1973 when the CBC Radio program The Arts in Review talked to Roderick Stewart, who has championed Bethune's life and cause for years. Stewart has written most recently about Bethune in a biography called Phoenix:The Life of Norman Bethune, and is the coauthor of another called Bethune in Spain.

A New Bethune Biography

In 2009, former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson wrote a new biography of Norman Bethune. She wanted to show that Bethune may have been revered by China, but was indeed thoroughly Canadian. She talked to Shelagh Rogers on her program The Next Chapter. They started by talking about Bethune's reputation as a womanizer.  

If you'd like to know more about the Bethune memorial in Gravenhurst, visit their website here They have celebrations to mark the 75th anniversary of Bethune's death.


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