Dr Norman Bethune, Graduation
Photo credit: Library and
China has always been way ahead
of Canada in honouring pioneering Canadian physician
Now the two countries have found
a way to jointly celebrate the doctor and swap medical
expertise and manpower at the same time. The Canada-China
Norman Bethune Health Research Scholarship Program,
announced in August by Health Minister Tony Clement
at the great doctor's former home in Gravenhurst, ON,
offers top Chinese students the chance to pursue PhDs
in health research in Canada.
"Dr Norman Bethune is known for
having done extraordinary work in the medical field
in both China and Canada," beamed Minister Clement,
adding, "Canada has a pressing need to attract more
top foreign students to study and complete work in health
The program is being funded jointly
by the two countries, with China paying $14,000 per
student per year, and Canada topping that up with a
"Bethune probably would have shown
impatience with the lip service," Dennis Bock, author
of The Communist's Daughter a fictionalized
biography of Bethune told NRM in an email
interview. "He would have demanded Clement put his money
where his mouth is. More funding for public medicine.
He didn't suffer fools, that's certain."
Dr Bethune performing
a blood transfusion during the Spanish Civil War
Photo credit: Geza Karpathi
/ Library and Archives Canada / C-067451
Best known as China's favourite doctor, Dr Bethune's
major medical contributions were in thoracic surgery
and battlefield medicine. While fighting Franco's Fascists
in the Spanish Civil War, he developed the mobile blood
transfusion unit a precursor to the Mobile Army
Surgical Hospital (M.A.S.H.).
In China, Dr Bethune, or 'Bai Qiu-en'
as he's known there, is nothing less than a national
hero. Though he only spent a year among them, Mao never
let the Chinese people forget this man who left a life
of privilege in Canada to work among the poor and war-ravaged
of the world. School kids still memorize General Mao's
eulogy and visitors still flock to his grave in Shijiazhuang.
"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," wrote General Mao Zedong in his eulogy.
"The Chinese still cherish a deep
memory of him," wrote the People's Daily Online,
on the 65th anniversary of his death.
Canada's greatest gift to China
Norman Bethune left his missionary
parents' home to study medicine at U of T, following
in his grandfather's footsteps, but interrupted
his studies to enlist in the army in 1915. In
France, he was injured by shrapnel while serving
as a medic.
After the Great War Dr Bethune
travelled in Europe, finished his medical studies
and eventually moved to the US where he served
in another war zone: the slums of Detroit. Running
himself ragged between his private GP practice
and his off-hours stints helping the poor, Dr
Bethune contracted tuberculosis. He underwent
an experimental artificial pneumothorax to cure
his TB. The experience inspired him to devote
his energy to eradicating the killer disease completely.
He got a job at Montreal's Royal
Victoria Hospital, in the tubercular research
centre. There, he invented the Bethune rib shears,
which are still used in thoracic surgery today.
When the Depression hit, Dr Bethune's attention
was forced back to the plight of the poor. "Bethune
was one of the first in the profession to link
TB with socio-economic conditions," notes Mr Bock.
A trip to Russia in 1935 introduced him to the
socialized medical system, and the idea took root.
He returned to Montreal to set up a free clinic
for the unemployed, and later that year he joined
the Canadian Communist Party. Like many other
leftist intellectuals of his day, he packed his
bags and headed for Spain to join the Republicans
fighting the Fascists in the Civil War.
Dr Bethune became field doctor
for the Republicans. There he set up arguably
his greatest medical contribution: the mobile
blood transfusion unit a precursor to the
Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M.A.S.H.). From
there, he went to China, which in 1938 was in
the throes of war with Japan. He made a lasting
impression on fellow communist and future leader
of the Chinese Revolution, Mao Zedong.
But he certainly didn't win
any popularity contests when he first arrived
in China. He ruffled many feathers when he found
the level of medical care grossly inadequate.
He embarked on the Mao army's march into war-torn
Shansi province, treating the wounded by day and
writing instruction manuals by night.
He treated, wrote and instructed
other health professionals in proper treatments
with a characteristic mix of dedication and impatience.
"It was as though I saved my compassion for the
dying," Mr Bock's Bethune admits. He even restrained
a patient once to force a blood donation out of
him and save another's life. And he did save it,
along with countless others along the way
risking his own life in the process.
Operating on a soldier one night,
Dr Bethune cut himself (he refused to wear rubber
gloves when operating). The wound became infected
and he died of sepsis days later on November 12,
1939. He was only 49.
"He was a tireless humanitarian
and selfless doctor, no doubt," says Mr Bock.
But Dr Bethune was also heroic in the literary
sense, he adds. "He was haunted by the one tragic
flaw that slays kings and emperors. Call it what
you will. Vanity. Ego. Ambition. Greek tragedy
required a mighty fall of the mighty. Bethune
fits that bill perfectly."