Norman Bethune

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Biography

"We must all learn the spirit of absolute selflessness from him.  With this spirit everyone can be very useful to the people.  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...a man who is of value to the people." - Mao Tse-tung

Henry Norman Bethune was born in Gravenhurst, Ontario on March 4th, 1890.  He attended the University of Toronto, but took a year off during his education to serve in World War I as a stretcher bearer.  Upon returning to Canada, he continued his studies and received his M.D. in 1916. Following postgraduate training in Britain and running a private practice in Detroit, Michigan, Bethune had a personal crisis in contracting and then recovering from pulmonary tuberculosis in 1926.  While devastating, this led Bethune to dedicate his life to tuberculosis victims and thoracic surgery, preparing him for the ground breaking medical work he would do in the field.

In 1935, after a trip to the Soviet Union, Bethune joined the Communist Party, leading him to take part in the Spanish Civil War in 1936.  Here, he organized the first mobile blood transfusion service operating on a 1000 km front.  In 1937, Bethune returned to Canada to raise money for the antifascist efforts in Spain.  However, after hearing about the war between China and Japan, he left Canada again in 1938 to join the 8th Route Army in the Shanxi-Hobei border region.  On November 9, 1939, the following year after arriving in China, Bethune died from blood poisoning, which he contracted while operating on a wounded soldier in the Second Sino-Japanese War.  Following his death, Mao wrote the statement above.

Dr. Bethune is known for many different medical innovations and services.  He was the first to introduce a mobile blood bank to the battlefield and performed numerous blood transfusions in the midst of combat in both Spain and China.  He is also known for the medical and missionary work he did in China, treating soldiers and civilians alike, and saving lives with the blood transfusion methods he pioneered.  He is still recognized there today for the work that he did.

In addition to surgery, Bethune wrote many articles for medical journals in which he introduced new surgical techniques and improvements based on his own experience and research.  Between 1929 and 1936, he wrote 14 articles documenting his surgical innovations in thoracic technique.  He also designed numerous new medical instruments and worked to perfect each one.  During this time, Bethune invented or redesigned 12 medical and surgical instruments.  One of these instruments, the "Bethune Rib Shears," is still manufactured today.

Dr. Bethune also had a passion for creative expression.  In The Politics of Passion: Norman Bethune''s Writing and Art, Larry Hannant writes, "Bethune's life was dominated by a deep need to express himself, and he did so with characteristic zeal and abundant talent.  In surgery, love, politics, painting, sketches, poetry, letters, short stories, photography, radio broadcasts and plays, public speaking, even medical articles and instruments, Bethune's intense desire to communicate his passions found outlets."

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