OCTOBER 15, 2007


Legendary doc Norman Bethune honoured

A hero in China, the communist MD gets home-grown recognition

Dr Norman Bethune, Graduation 1922
Photo credit:�Library and Archives Canada/PA-160708

China has always been way ahead of Canada in honouring pioneering Canadian physician Norman Bethune.

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 research."

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 $3,000-7,000 stipend.

"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.

Norman Bethune: 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."



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