Spotlight: Dr. Norman Bethune

Dr. Norman Bethune (c. 1938) was a tireless Canadian doctor and activist who remains a controversial humanitarian to this day. [Source]

Born in Gravenhurst, Ontario, Henry Norman Bethune (1890-1939) was a physician, surgeon, inventor, army officer, and during the last years of his life a strong supporter of communism. Difficult to get along with, impatient, and risk-taker in surgery, he alienated himself from the Canadian medical community. Ultimately though, it was these characteristics that led to his important medical work on the battlefield. He was the first to introduce mobile blood banks and his efforts during both the Spanish Civil War and the Second Sino-Japanese War are a part of his lasting legacy. Following his untimely (and slightly ironic) death, Dr. Bethune was elevated to icon status in China, making it fair to say he might just be better known there than in his home country.

Graduation Photo (1916). [Source]

Starting in 1909, Bethune was a student at the University of Toronto, but his studies were interrupted when WWI broke out. He signed up for the Canadian Army Medical Corps and left for France in early 1915. While working as a stretcher-bearer in Ypres, Belgium, his leg was injured by a shrapnel shell. After recovering, Bethune returned to Canada to wrap up his studies. He received his MD in 1916 and what did he do next? He went back to Europe. This time he joined the Royal Navy and worked as a lieutenant-surgeon.

Fun Fact: One of Bethune’s U of T classmates was Frederick Banting, the co-discoverer of insulin.

Resident staff at the Hospital for Sick Children in London, England. Bethune is standing in the back, second from the right (1919). [Source]

The end of the war marked the start of his back and forth post-graduate training between UK hospitals and private practice in Ontario. During this time Bethune met his wife, Frances Penny, and the two of them eventually moved to Detroit, Michigan, where Bethune opened up his own practice. In 1926 his life entered a dark period. Not only did Bethune contract tuberculosis and was hospitalized in the Trudeau Sanatorium at Saranac Lake in New York, but his rocky marriage fell apart (he had a penchant for alcohol and blowing money). Frances divorced him. (The two did get back together in 1929, but divorced for a second and final time in 1933).

Getting tuberculosis in the 1920s was like getting tuberculosis in the 1520s: it was generally a death sentence. Bed rest was the main treatment for it. For Bethune though, bed rest meant go to the sanitarium library and…

…on tuberculous. Eventually he came across an article on an artificial pneumothorax procedure—inserting air or nitrogen into the pleural space to collapse the lung which allows it to rest and recover. Bethune (and I quote) “badgered the physicians at the sanitarium into performing the operation.” It was a success and Bethune left the institution in 1927 with a new mission: use his acquired knowledge to help other tuberculous victims.

Bethune dedicated the next eight years of his life to this mission. He invented or redesigned 12 medical instruments like the pneumothorax device on the left and rib shears which are still in use today and published many papers on the subject of thoracic surgery. From 1928 to 1932, he worked at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montréal on tuberculous victims and then as the chief of pulmonary surgery at the Hôpital du Sacré-Cœur afterwards.

While living in Montreal, Bethune befriended many left-wing writers and artists and he grew interested in communism. This tied into his growing awareness of the socioeconomic conditions of tuberculous, namely that the rich got better while the poor died. When Bethune traveled to the USSR in 1935 for a medical conference, he visited Soviet hospitals and was deeply impressed by their medical and political system, as well as their preventive tuberculous measures. When he returned to Canada, Bethune joined the Communist Party of Canada.

Not-So-Fun-Fact: After joining the party, Bethune organized a group of medical professionals to submit a health care reform plan to the Quebec government in 1936. The reaction from both the public and medical community was hostile. “Socialized medicine in Canada?!”

Dr. Bethune stands in front of a Canadian Blood Transfusion Unit (c. 1936-1937). [Source]

Any disappointment Bethune felt over his failed reform plan got quickly overshadowed by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Fascists backed by the Catholic Church vs a Republican coalition of anarchists, socialists, and communists? Sign me up! Bethune resigned from the hospital, wrote up a will that left everything to Frances, and left for Madrid. He quickly realized that the best way he could assist was by providing blood-transfusion services. He gathered a team and set up the Servicio Canadiense de Tranfusion de Sangre (Canadian Blood Transfusion Service). He didn’t want to wait for the wounded to arrive at hospitals so instead Bethune positioned his team near the front lines to help people faster. Mobile blood-transfusion was a major development in military medical services and went on to become a fixture on future battlefields.

Dr. Norman Bethune, assisted by Henning Sorensen, performs transfusion during the Spanish Civil War.  [Source]

Unfortunately, Bethune got caught up in the mid-war paranoia that took over Madrid. He was suspected of being a spy, (Bethune made geographical notes and was in a relationship with Swedish journalist, Kajsa von Rothman, also a suspected spy). This paranoia along with the boneheaded decision to mouth off to the authorities when the Spanish government took over his transfusion services, Bethune was sent back to Canada in May 1937.

Meeting between Dr. Norman Bethune (left) and Nieh Jung-Chen (centre), Commander-in-Chief of the Chin-Ch’a-Chi Border Region. A translator sits on the right. (1938). [Source]

He wasn’t home for long; that same year Japan invaded China and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) broke out. To Bethune, “Spain and China are part of the same battle” and he set off for northern China to help Mao Zedong’s 8th Route Army in early 1938. Bethune became the medical adviser for the Chinese Nationalists at the frontier. Horrified by the lack of training, instruments, and medicine, he set about to rectify the situation. He created carrying cases and mobile operating tables to speed up medical work, he supervised the training of doctors and nurses, performed numerous operations, and resumed his mobile transfusion work. His motto was “Go to the wounded! Don’t wait for the wounded to come to you!” He was even planning to return to Canada to raise the funds to build a medical school.

Bethune performing surgery in an unused Buddhist temple in central Hopei, China. (1939) [Source]

His dedication to others (ex: one time his team did 115 operations in just 69 hours) came at the expense of himself. He did not rest much, ate poorly, lost a lot of weight, and his vision was deteriorating. In early November of 1939, Bethune cut his middle finger during an operation. He wound up contracting septicaemia (blood poisoning). Stubborn to the end, he rebuffed everyone who suggested amputation to prevent the infection from spreading because it would have been the end of his surgical career. His career came to an end regardless. Bethune died on November 12, 1939.

His death was a blow to the 8th Route Army. In December, Mao Zedong published his famous eulogy,  “In Memory of Norman Bethune,” which spoke about how his selfless devotion to others should be an example for all. The essay became mandatory reading for Chinese students and still appears in their textbooks today. There are numerous schools, hospitals, and even China’s highest medical honour is named after him. He stayed relatively unknown in Canada until 1973 when Chinese-Canadian relations resumed after over two decades of Cold War antagonism. Although Bethune was memorialized in the same way over here, (national honours, commemorative stamps, biographies, his birthplace is now a tourist destination, etc), the narrative around Bethune goes back and forth between positive and negative, depending on who is making a case for or against him. Rather than add to this, I’ll leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions. 😉

Statue of Bethune at Wanping Fortress, Beijing. (2008) [Source]


All pictures (excluding the the pneumothorax device and the last one) courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

Clarkson, Adrienne, Norman Bethune, Toronto: Penguin Canada (2009).

“Dr. Norman Bethune,” ARCHIVED – Famous Canadian Physicians. Library and Archives Canada. Last modified July 2008. Accessed from:

Russell, H.. R. The Canadian Encyclopedia. (2010). Norman Bethune. Toronto: Historica Canada, August 2010. Retrieved August 28, 2016 From

Shenwen Li, “BETHUNE, HENRY NORMAN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–. 2011. Accessed from:

Stewart, Roderick and Stewart, Sharon, Phoenix: The Life of Norman Bethune. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press. (2011).





6 thoughts on “Spotlight: Dr. Norman Bethune

      • LT says:

        I feel like he and Tommy Douglas me get have made an unstoppable force.

        Haha, now I’m picturing the buddy movie that never was. Tommy and Norm: a Bromance.

        Liked by 2 people

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