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Norman Bethune (1890-1939)

Norman Bethune

Norman Bethune was a Canadian surgeon, humanitarian, political activist, writer, scientist, inventor, teacher and artist. A citizen of the world!

Henry Norman Bethune was born on March 3rd, in Gravenhurst, Ontario, in a religious family. He was a curious, smart and independent boy, when he was six, he left his Toronto house to explore the city while his parents and his relatives were searching for him everywhere, returning home on his own several hours later.

At the age of 21, Norman interrupted his studies in biology at the University of Toronto to work at the Frontier College, setting up course for immigrant workers in a bush lumber camp in northern Ontario.

In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. While serving as a stretcher bearer, he was injured at Ypres, Belgium. Norman returned back to Canada and after finishing his medical degree, this time enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1917. He served as a surgeon-lieutenant at the Chatham Hospital in UK until the end of the War. He stayed in the UK and engaged in his post-graduate studies, first in paediatrics and then in surgery. In 1923, he married Frances Campbell Penny, the beautiful daughter of a prominent Edinburgh court accountant. The year after, they moved to Detroit, Michigan, where Dr. Norman Bethune set up his first and only private clinic. His goal was to serve poverty and diseased stricken neighbourhoods of the City; he worked hard and because of his close contacts with the patients, two years later, contracted tuberculosis at the age of 34.

During that period, the known remedy for tuberculosis was total bed rest in a sanatorium. Bedridden Bethune read about a radical new treatment for the disease, called artificial pneumothorax. This procedure was about pumping air into the pleural cavity of diseased lung, thus allowing the under pressure and contracted lung to rest and heal itself. Bethune demanded the treatment in spite of doctors’ opinion that the procedure was too new and risky. The operation was performed on him in Trudeau Sanatorium in Saranac Lake, New York. Within a month, he fully recovered and decided to dedicate himself to the eradication of tuberculosis; a disease that was closely related to poverty.

In 1926, at the start of his illness, believing he was dying, he had insisted his wife to divorce him and return to her homeland Scotland, so she did it. Now healthy Bethune wrote to his ex-wife and demanded to merry her again. At first she refused but eventually she agreed and they remarried in 1929. Their marriage did not last long, due to their great temperamental differences. They divorced for a final time in 1933.

Early in 1928, Bethune moved to Montreal. For 5 years, he was the first surgical assistant to Dr. Edward Archibald, Canada’s pioneering thoracic surgeon, at the Royal Victoria Hospital. In 1933, he became the head of the Department of Thoracic Surgery at the Sacre Coeur Hospital in North Montreal. During this time, he was twice elected to the Executive Committee of the American Association for Thoracic Surgery.

Bethune designed or modified more than a dozen new surgical tools. His most famous instrument was the Bethune Rib Shears, which is still produced and used by surgeons around the world. He wrote many articles for medical journals, introducing new surgical techniques and outlining improvements based on his own research.

During the Great Depression of 1930s, about one-third of Montreal’s population was depending on direct relief. Poverty, lack of sanity and illnesses were rampant. Bethune was increasingly disappointed with mere medical treatment and concerned more with the root cause of the diseases.

In 1935, he set up a free clinic for the unemployed and poor in Montreal. Later that summer, he attended the International Physiological Conference in the Soviet Union and used this opportunity to examine socialized medicine. He came to believe that only a public health care founded by the government would ensure treatment for all, regardless of their financial status. In the same year he joined the Communist Party of Canada.

In 1936, Bethune organized the Montreal Group for the Security of People’s Health. That was the first group promoting public health care in Canada.

In the summer of 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out. In September, Bethune volunteered to join the anti-fascist, Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion. The Battalion set off for Madrid on November 3rd 1936, to assist the democratically elected Republican Government of Spain.

Francisco Franco, the fascist general who was supported by the military might of the Nazi Germany and the Fascist Italy, led a brutal rebellion to crush the newly emerging democracy in Spain, and regain the old capitalist-oligarchic system; a system that had fallen under the weight of its internal corruption and contagious Global Economic Depression. Bethune like all progressists saw this as a threat to the global peace and social justice, which its trend had to stop in Spain.

In Spain, War was on the move with enormous casualties. Medical shock by the blood loss was a frequent cause of death in the battle fields, even in those with no life-threatening injuries; Bethune developed a mobile blood transfusion service. That collected blood from donors and delivered it to the injured soldiers. This first mobile blood bank saved many lives and has been called the greatest innovation in the military medicine; this innovation paved the way for the formation of the then, the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) units.

Bethune was a first hand eyewitness with how fascists deliberately bombed civilian refugees in Almeria, killing thousands of helpless women and children. Bethune wrote sad poems picturing events of the Spanish Civil War. He wrote to a friend, “Spain is a scar on my heart.”

In July 1937, the colonizing forces of the Militarist Japan, invaded China, starting the Second Sino Japanese War. Bethune realized that another dictatorship was on march, now in another part of world. He wrote “Spain and China, are part of the same battle. I am going to China because that is, where the need is the greatest.”

Accompanied by Jean Ewen, a Canadian nurse, and $5000 worth of medical supplies collected by the Communist Parties of Canada and United States, Bethune left Canada for the last time on January 08th 1938. He arrived in Hankow, China, where Chou En-lai the future prime-minister of People Republic of China was waiting for him. Chou En-lai offered him an escort to the Communist head quarters at Yenan. There he met Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Communist Party of China. Mao Zedong invited him to stay in the region and to supervise the Eighth Route Army Border Hospital. The Lebanese-American doctor, George Hatem who had come to Yenan earlier was instrumental in helping Bethune get started at his task of organizing medical services for the region and front. But soon after, Bethune left Yenan for the frontlines, as he felt that he was much more needed there.

In the battle fronts, Bethune performed many emergency surgical operations sometimes without stop during 3-4 days. He treated wounded Chinese soldiers, Communists and Nationalists, as well as injured Japanese prisoners. In a very bad sanitary situation, not only he treated the wounded, but he also established schools to train doctors, nurses and other medical staff. His military superiors had great respect for him and allowed him to go ahead with his plans. He emphasized in his monthly reports, that instead of waiting for patients, doctors must go to the wounded. Here he established the first mobile surgical service which became a model for the healthcare policy of the People Republic of China later.

By his courage and selflessness, Bethune became a legendry figure. Tales were told of this extraordinary foreigner who was undisturbed by hardship, who gave his cloths, his food, and even his own blood to the wounded. “Attack, Bethune is with us”, became the soldiers’ battle cry.

As a response to the gratefulness of the Chinese people, he worked tirelessly and anxiously to his limits. “It is true I am tired,” he wrote to a friend in Canada, “but I don’t think I have been so happy for a long time. I am needed.”

During an operation, Bethune accidentally cut his own finger. That had happened several times before; but this time he got a virulent infection which cost him his short and fruitful life. Bethune died about two weeks later on November 12th 1939.

When Mao Zedong heard of his death, he wrote “In Memory of Norman Bethune”, “We must all learn the spirit of absolute selflessness from him. With this spirit everyone can be very helpful to each other. A man’s ability may be great or small, but if he has this spirit, he is already noble-minded and pure, a man of moral integrity and above vulgar interests, a man who is of value to the people.”

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