Dr. Norman Bethune (1890–1939)
China’s great friend
Virtually unknown in Canada during his lifetime, Dr. Norman Bethune continues to be revered in China as an example of selfless humanitarianism.
Born in Gravenhurst, Ontario, in 1890, Bethune seemed destined to spend much of his life on or near a battlefield. He interrupted his medical studies to serve as a stretcher-bearer in France during World War I.
Wounded by shrapnel, he returned to Canada and graduated from the University of Toronto’s faculty of medicine in 1916. With the war still on, Bethune returned to serve in England as a lieutenant-surgeon with the Royal Navy.
After the war, Bethune practised in Montreal, where he set up a free medical clinic and lobbied for universal health care. But he was restless and passionate by nature and, when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, he left for Madrid, setting up the world’s first mobile blood-transfusion clinic.
Bethune is most remembered for the two years he spent in China during the Sino-Japanese War. He fearlessly cared for wounded soldiers and civilians amidst aggressive fighting. He built a portable surgical theatre, which he carried on two mules, and trained civilians in basic medical and surgical practices.
On November 12, 1939, Bethune died from blood poisoning after operating on a wounded soldier. The Chinese greatly mourned his loss. To this day, Chinese schoolchildren learn about “the great Canadian friend of the Chinese people.”