Bethune: Legendary Canadian Communist

This article is part of a series produced by People’s Voice Newspaper honouring the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party of Canada.

The most legendary Canadian communist is undoubtedly Norman Bethune: brilliant medical pioneer, early campaigner for universal health care, writer, and passionate anti-fascist. His colourful life has been the subject of countless books, articles, plays and films, and he was immortalized in a famous essay by Mao Zedong.

To this day, Bethune’s personality is relentlessly analyzed by some who downplay his revolutionary essence. A recent biography by former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson, for example, tries to explain Norman Bethune’s political outlook as a reflection of his religious family origins, not a logical response to the horrors of capitalist war and injustice.

Born in Gravenhurst, Ontario on March 3, 1890, Bethune was one of three children of a Presbyterian minister. He graduated from Owen Sound Collegiate, and enrolled in medicine at the University of Toronto in 1909. His studies were interrupted in 1911, when he became a labourer-teacher with Frontier College, holding literacy classes for immigrant mine labourers in northern Ontario.

Like many of his generation, Bethune volunteered when World War One broke out, only to witness the horror of imperialist slaughter on the battlefields of Europe. As a stretcher‑bearer in France, he was wounded by shrapnel, and returned home to complete his medical degree. In 1917 he joined the Royal Navy as a Surgeon-Lieutenant at the Chatham Hospital in England. After the war, he became a specialist at The Hospital for Sick Children in London, and then furthered his qualifications at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh.

He married heiress Frances Penny in 1923, and the couple eventually moved to Detroit, where he began private practice and a part‑time job as a medical instructor. Contracting tuberculosis due to overwork and close contact with the sick, Bethune sought treatment at the Trudeau Sanatorium in Saranac Lake, New York. There he researched a controversial new treatment, which involved artificially collapsing the tubercular lung, allowing it to rest and heal. The operation was a success, and he made a full recovery. But the experience helped to confirm his radical views on disease and medicine under capitalism.

In 1929 Bethune joined the thoracic surgical pioneer, Dr. Edward William Archibald, at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. From 1929 to 1936 he perfected his skills, developed or modified more than a dozen new surgical tools, and published 14 articles describing his innovations in thoracic technique.

At the same time, he became deeply involved with social and economic issues, providing free medical care for the poor, and art classes for children. He formed the Montreal Group for the Security of People’s Health, and in 1935 he visited the Soviet Union to observe the socialist system of free public health care. During that same year, he joined the Communist Party of Canada.

When the Spanish Civil War began in 1936, he accepted an invitation to head the Canadian Medical Unit in Madrid, linked with the Mackenzie‑Papineau Battalion of Canadian anti-fascist fighters. Faced with sudden battlefield deaths caused by loss of blood, Bethune conceived the idea of on-site transfusions, and developed the world’s first mobile blood-transfusion unit. He returned to Canada in June 1937, embarking on a cross-country tour to raise money and volunteers for the struggle for democracy in Spain.

As the global fascist threat deepened, Bethune travelled in 1938 to China, to join the Communists led by Mao Zedong fighting the Japanese invaders. He immediately begin to organize medical services for the military front and the region. He performed emergency operations on war casualties, and established training for doctors, nurses and orderlies, treating wounded Japanese prisoners as well as Chinese.

In the summer of 1939 Bethune was appointed Medical Advisor to the Jin‑Zha‑Ji (Shanxi‑Chahar‑Hebei) Border Region Military District, liberated by the Communist Party of China’s Eighth Route Army. A few months later, Bethune cut his finger while operating on a soldier. Probably due to his weakened state, he contracted blood poisoning, and died of his wounds on November 12, 1939.

Bethune received international recognition when Chairman Mao Zedong of the People’s Republic of China published his essay “In Memory of Norman Bethune”, which documented the final months of the doctor’s life. The essay became required reading in China’s schools. Statues dedicated to Bethune’s honour have been erected throughout China, and he is buried in the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery, Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province.

There have been many other forms of official recognition. Bethune College at York University, and Dr. Norman Bethune Collegiate Institute in Scarborough, Ontario, are named after him. In 1976, the manse in Gravenhurst where he was born was restored as Bethune Memorial House, a National Historic Site. In 1998, Bethune was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, and his statue stands in a public square near Montreal’s Guy-Concordia Metro station. In 2006, Spain opened the Walk of Canadians in Malaga, paying tribute to Bethune and his colleagues who helped the population of that city during the Spanish Civil War.

Bethune was the subject of a 1964 National Film Board documentary, directed by Donald Brittain. Donald Sutherland played Bethune in two films, including Bethune: The Making of a Hero (1990), based on the 1952 biography The Scalpel, The Sword, by Ted Allan and Sydney Gordon. In the CBC’s Greatest Canadian program in 2004, he was voted the 26th Greatest Canadian by viewers.

Towering over those who would trivialize his tumultuous life, Norman Bethune is recognized around the world as a revolutionary martyr, whose courage and dedication to the goals of socialism have inspired generations in the struggle for a better world.


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