Dr. Norman Bethune, heroic surgeon and innovator
Dedicated to medicine, Dr. Bethune devised new instruments and treatment, instituted battlefield care with transfusions and surgery and earned a place in China’s history.
When war is called, people from across the globe feel the need to take action, to provide their help to one side or the other. They want to make a difference. When the Japanese attacked China in the 1930s, a number of Canadian doctors were drawn to the fighting, not as soldiers but as medical practitioners to aid the wounded and spare lives. One of those doctors was Norman Bethune, a political activist and dedicated physician. He directed his abundant energies to the battlefield of China and forged a reputation as a hero.
Henry Norman Bethune was born in Gravenhurst, Ontario on March 3, 1890 to the Presbyterian Reverend Malcolm Bethune and his wife Ann. An independent and adventurous boy, he was often at odds with his parents. “The struggle between obedience and altruism on the one hand, and rebellion and selfish independence on the other began early and characterized his nature throughout his life,” said Roderick Stewart in his 1973 book, Bethune.
Bethune, the physician
Like his grandfather, Bethune took up medicine. He attended the University of Toronto, but interrupted his training for a stint as a medic in World War One. A member of the No. 2 Field Ambulance Corps, he was stationed in France. A shrapnel injury put him out of action for three months to heal, according to the National Review of Medicine. Bethune returned to his schooling, receiving his Bachelor of Medicine in 1916; the man who was to later become famous for his work on diabetes and insulin was a classmate – Frederick Banting. Dr. Bethune briefly returned to the war theatre after graduation, becoming Lieutenant-Surgeon with the Royal Navy, then moved on to train further as surgeon at the University of Edinburgh.
While in Scotland in 1917, Bethune met Frances Campbell Penney. They were married in August 1920, living first in England and then in Canada. The pair moved to Detroit, Michigan where Bethune opened private practice in 1925. A short time later he was appointed to two positions at Harper Hospital. With a heavy workload, Bethune began to feel less than healthy, and his relationship with his wife Frances was in equally poor condition.
Bethune contracted Tuberculosis
On doctor’s examination in September 1926, Bethune was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis and in December he retreated to Trudeau Sanatorium in New York for care and recovery. At the facility, notes Collections Canada, Bethune “saw first-hand how little could be done for many victims of tuberculosis.” Certain there must be better methods, Bethune underwent a controversial treatment for the disease called pneumothorax, in which the diseased lung was collapsed, stopping the spread of tuberculosis and permitting the lung to heal.
Recovering, Bethune decided then “to become a thoracic [chest] surgeon and cure tuberculosis patients.” By that time, Frances had left him. In the spring of 1928 at age 39, “Bethune was broke, divorced and beginning a new career.” He took the job offered by Dr. Edward Archibald, moving to the Royal Victoria Hospital as Chief Surgeon and Professor of Surgery, and Chairman of the Surgery Department of McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.
Bethune revelled in his work at the Royal Victoria Hospital, inventing and redesigning instruments for surgery and medicine, writing articles and reference books on surgical techniques and his discoveries. He realized that the TB patients he saw were becoming re-infected and that their living conditions played a part. The doctor became an activist, promoting social and medical reforms, asking for socialized medicine in Canada. He was refused.
Returning from a trip to the Soviet Union in 1935, Bethune joined the Canadian Communist Party with the determination to make the world a better place. He set off for Spain during the Spanish Civil War against fascism. To aid the war-wounded, he initiated the first mobile transfusion service. By spring 1937, the medical team were successfully performing up to 100 transfusions a day.
Mobile medical units accompanied military regiments
After a short time home in Canada, Dr. Bethune was once again ready to take on new battles. He
aligned with the Communist Chinese in their defence against the attacking Japanese, joining the 8th Route Army with an accompanying medical team. Bethune met the leader of China, Mao Zedong, and won Mao’s great respect with his philosophies on politics and medicine. Understanding that quick care meant saving lives, Bethune set up mobile medical units to travel with the military regiments. “Doctors must go to the wounded and the earlier the better,” he told a Chinese general.
Renowned and beloved after less than a year in China, Bethune was made Medical Advisor, virtually in command of the Chinese medical forces. He worked, noted Roderick Stewart, “night and day, rushing to battles, operating, returning to sketch plans for the mobile service, snatching moments to write a few pages in his medical text or a letter to Canada.” Bethune taught his techniques to new doctors, nurses and aides.
Surgical error led to Bethune’s death
After a lull, the fighting flared up again in October. During a battlefield operation on a soldier, Bethune cut his finger. He developed septicemia, a blood infection, that made him deathly sick over several days. He died on November 12, 1939 at only 49 years of age.
Known as short-tempered and irritable and also charming, devoted, intelligent and high-spirited, Dr. Norman Bethune was revered as a hero in China, given the name Pai-chui-en or, “White One Sent”. Statues and a hospital were erected in his honour and he was chosen as “the symbol of selflessness, dedication and responsibility” by the Communist government. Bethune was buried in a tomb in Shih-chia Chuang, China. Gravenhurst, Ontario celebrated Bethune’s achievements with a bronze statue and by naming the town a national historic site. Canada Post commemorated the dedicated doctor on a 39-cent stamp in 1990, on the 100th anniversary of Bethune’s birth.
Stewart, Roderick, Bethune, New Press, Toronto, Ontario, 1973.
Issa, Judah, “Legendary Doc Norman Bethune honoured,” National Review of Medicine, October 15, 2007, Volume 4, No. 17.
article first appeared on Suite101.com in May 2009. (C) Susanna McLeod