Dr. Norman Bethune

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He carried a wounded soldier through the charred fields of Ypres as bombs exploded around him, Only six months earlier, he had been deep in his studies as a medical student at the University of Toronto.

Then, Canada entered the First World War and within days he enlisted. Now bullets whizzed by him a world away in Belgium. The Second Battle of Ypres saw 6,000 Canadian casualties in only four days of fighting where, the ground shook from artillery to the sound of screams of the dying and wounded. He took the man he carried to safety and  ran back into the fray to grab another wounded soldier when a shrapnel shell exploded nearby, and metal tore into his flesh.

At that moment Dr. Norman Bethune became one of the wounded. He would survive, and although his time on the front lines was over he would go on to save countless lives and become a hero for many more.

I’m Craig Baird and This is Canadian History Ehx!


Dr. Norman Bethune was born into a very prestigious family in Gravenhurst, Ontario, on March 4, 1890. He came from a prominent Scottish Canadian family, whose origins could be traced back to the Bethune/Beaton medical kindred who practiced medicine in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Era.

He came from a long line of prominent Canadians, his great-great grandfather was Dr. John Bethune, established the first Presbyterian congregation in Montreal, five churches in Ontario & founded the Presbyterian Church of Canada. His relative, Mary Bethune, was married to Sir John Abbott, a future prime minister of Canada.

He was also related to Maude Abbott, one of the earliest female medical graduates in Canada.  His grandfather Norman Bethune, Sr. became one of the founders of the Upper Canada School of Medicine, which eventually became the University of Toronto.

In 1929 a distant relative was born by the name of Christopher Plummer. He would go on to be one of Canada’s most acclaimed actors, and the sole recipient of the triple crown of acting having won an Academy Award, two Tony Awards, and two Primetime Emmy Awards. He passed away in 2021.

Aside from Plummer the family was really known for their contributions to medicine. Centuries before Norman was born, his ancestors in Scotland produced as many as 76 physicians between 1300 and 1750 CE. Members of his family were employed by every Scottish monarch from Robert I in the 14th Century to Charles I in the 17th century. While his father led a quiet life as a pastor, the call to medicine was too strong for young Norman, and years later he said he inherited his love of medicine from his grandfather, and his strong work ethic from his father.


 Due to his father’s occupation, he attended different schools and churches throughout his childhood. As a young adult, he attended Owen Sound Collegiate Institute, and graduated in 1907. He taught briefly at a nearby primary school before enrolling at the University of Toronto in 1909 to study physiology and biochemistry. He stayed for a time, but Norman’s adventurous spirit needed a change of pace, so he took a job as a labourer and teacher in lumber camps north of Sudbury. He and the other men worked in the bush during the day and at night he taught English and math timber workers.

He encouraged them to learn through singing and games and he sent letters to the Frontier College in Toronto asking for magazines, Bibles and hymn books for his students.

After his time at the lumber camps, he returned to the University of Toronto and entered its faculty of medicine. But two years into it, his studies were once again interrupted. This time by war.

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Canada and Norman entered the First World War, where he was wounded. Upon his return home, he recovered and earned his medical degree from the University of Toronto in 1916. With the war still in progress , Norman spent time with the Royal Navy as a Surgeon-Lieutenant in London, followed by an internship after the war at The Hospital for Sick Children. Afterwards, he went to Edinburgh to earn his Fellowship of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons.

It was there he met Frances Penney, whom he married on Aug. 13, 1923. Frances had an inheritance and the couple spent nearly all of it while touring Europe for a year. After their money ran out, they returned to North America and settled in Detroit where Norman opened a private practice and taught at the Detroit College of Medicine and Surgery.

While the practice started slowly, it eventually thrived and the couple were able to live in a fashionable part of the city, and even bought a car. They continued in a relatively normal life until 1926 when Norman contracted tuberculosis and spent time at the Trudeau Sanatorium in upstate New York. While he was recuperating, he and Francis divorced.

The couple had been drifting apart for some time. Norman was described as passionate and energetic, but also authoritarian and domineering. This was in sharp contrast to Frances, who had an outgoing and carefree personality. She often found living with Norman to be difficult because  he was absorbed in his work, leaving her feeling alone and isolated.

As Norman spent a year in bed recovering, Frances enjoyed living apart and decided she didn’t want to go back but this won’t be the last nail in the coffin yet.


As his marriage collapsed, Norman read about a radical surgery for tuberculosis called pneumothorax, which involved collapsing the diseased lung, allowing it to rest and heal. The physicians at the sanatorium felt the procedure was too risky but Norman insisted on the surgery. The risk paid off and he made a full recovery. The surgery and his time in the sanatorium not only sparked a desire to specialize in thoracic surgery but also solidified his political views. He saw that there were two types of tuberculosis, where treatments and recovery were divided between the rich and poor. He saw the inequities  in medicine, something that went on to  define his life.

Norman moved back to Montreal to work at the Royal Victoria Hospital where he became an assistant to the eminent Dr. Edward William Archibald, a pioneer in lung surgery. While there, he and Francis reconnected and, surprising many who knew them, they remarried. For the next eight years, Norman began to work at an incredible pace.

He developed over a dozen new surgery tools and published 14 articles describing innovations in thoracic surgery techniques. In 1929 alone, he published four articles and designed l, the Bethune Rib Shears, which are still used in surgeries to this day. While working at the Royal Victoria Hospital during those years, Norman’s relationship with Archibald and other doctors strained as he known to criticize the other doctors openly, especially over whether an operation was needed. Norman was more likely to push for high-risk surgeries likely because of his own positive experience with a  high-risk procedure.

He was criticized for the high mortality rate of his patients, but this can be explained by his willingness to take on patients who had few options except for experimental and high risk surgeries.

The tensions were high at work and that affected his homelife; his second marriage to Francis ended in divorce. Meanwhile, Norman attempted to push against prevailing tuberculosis theories . He refuted the claims that climate was a factor in treatment, stating it was no longer necessary for those suffering from the disease to take long trips in search of sunshine and dry air. He praised the method of collapsing the lung used to cure his own condition, stating that the lung heals much faster when that is done.

He also criticized municipal and provincial governments for their failure in preventing the disease, citing the death of John Bunyan in Montreal. He died when he was discharged from a sanitorium too soon, and forced to return to work because he could not afford medical care.

Norman said,

“Of the 1,000 patients who are discharged each year from the sanitoriums around Montreal, more than 50 per cent are not entirely cured.”

Norman went against the grain… even in what he wore. While other doctors wore grey suits, he walked around in sports jackets or casual clothes. He also liked to be surrounded by women socially, even when he was married, something that was frowned upon. Eventually, it reached the point where Archibald dismissed him.

But it did not take long for Norman to find work.

He was hired at another Montreal hospital to serve as the chief of pulmonary surgery. Now in charge, he was able to work without interference and began to operate and train surgeons, introduced techniques such as person-to-person blood transfusions and continued to modify surgical instruments and publish articles. Before long, his fame in Canada grew and in 1935, he was made the president of the American Association for Thoracic Surgery. And if you think that Norman’s would rest on these laurels… you would be mistaken.


Norman had reached incredible heights in thoracic medicine but that wasn’t his only passion. He also wrote short stories and poems, and also took up painting. This is when he was introduced to more artistic and left-leaning individuals, like Marion Scott. Her husband was Francis Reginald Scott, a poet and professor at McGill University.

He was also involved with the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the precursor to today’s NDP. Marion and Francis introduced him to new political ideas, and he developed a growing interest in communism. Norman was also in love with Marion. Amid all of this, the Great Depression left millions of Canadians without employment, and left many destitute.

There was no universal health care and those without the funds had to rely on the generosity of doctors. Many doctors in various towns provided medical care in exchange for food, livestock or on credit, but there was no guaranteed care. Reminded of his time in the Detroit sanatorium where he saw inequities in care, Norman’s political views shifted as he saw access to medical care be limited by funds. To help the impoverished in the city, he provided free medical care and attempted to get his colleagues to do the same with limited success.

So, he called on the Canadian government to make reforms to medical and health care access.

It fell on deaf ears, Norman said,

“Medicine, as we are practicing it, is a luxury trade. We are selling bread at the price of jewels. … Let us take the profit, the private economic profit, out of medicine, and purify our profession of rapacious individualism … Let us say to the people not ‘How much have you got?’ but ‘How best can we serve you?’”

He formed the Montreal Group for the Security of People’s Health and pushed the idea of socialized medicine decades before Canada had universal health care. In August 1935, he travelled to the Soviet Union to attend the 15th International Physiological Congress. While there, he visited Russian hospitals and observed the country’s universal healthcare system. Impressed by it, he began to lean further into communism as a solution. Upon his return to Canada in November, he immediately became a member of the Communist Party of Canada.

At the time, communism was popular among labourers, especially with so many out of work. For the government it was nothing short of being public enemy number one.

Prime Minister R.B. Bennett routinely saw communist plots everywhere and harshly put down protests because he saw them as supported by communists. Those who were thought to be communists, or were openly communist, were followed by the RCMP and even jailed. Communist Party of Canada leader Tim Buck was put in jail at one point, and that’s where there was an assassination attempt on his life.

Even with the risks, Norman organized a study group called the Montreal Group for the Security of the People’s Health. The organization brought together doctors, nurses and social workers who examined other countries with the goal of reforming Canada’s health care system. After four months, the group came forward with a four-point plan. It included municipal medicine, compulsory health insurance, voluntary health insurance and medical care for the unemployed. They took their report to the Quebec government in the summer of 1936, but it went nowhere, and Norman was disappointed.

Around this time, he seemed to have a fatalist view of his future, telling a friend,

“I am persuaded there is something fatal and doomed and predestined about myself.”

With his newfound political philosophy, Norman started looking for something new.

He found it in the Spanish Civil War.

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The war began with a failed coup in July 1936 against the ruling Republican government by a group of generals. It quickly devolved into a civil war between the Second Spanish Republic, the left leaning government, against the Nationalists, who were an alliance of monarchists, conservatives and traditionalists. Considered a prelude to the Second World War, it lasted until April 1, 1939, and left 200,000 soldiers dead, along with over 150,000 civilians. Norma resigned from his position at the hospital as he was faced with the failure of his attempts  to change provincial health care, and the realization he could never have a romantic relationship with Marion Scott.

He wrote a will leaving everything to his ex-wife, and left Canada for Spain.

His hospital job paid him $8,000 per year, about $166,000 in 2023 funds, but he chose to abandon that, and to provide his services to Spain without any charge.

Norman said,

“I am only heeding the call of one million people suffering and needing medical aid. I am not going over for the adventure. Whether or not Madrid falls before the invading forces, I will complete my mission.”

At first, he offered his services to the Canadian Red Cross but was told that there were no plans to raise a unit to help in Spain. Norman decided to simply sail on his own accord. Haze Sise, a friend said that Norman was,

“a person who had no inhibitions, no gap between thought and action. If he thought something was worthwhile doing, he would just go right out and do it. And he would leave a trail of annoyed bureaucrats and hurt feelings behind him.”

On Nov. 3, 1936, he arrived in Madrid.

He said months later,

“You might ask me, why was it I cared so much about going to Spain? It was a contest between the autocratic, moneyed, privileged capitalist class in conjunction with a powerful dominating church and combined with the powerful military caste, which was fighting to regain their diminishing power over workers, peasants, and middle class of Spain.”

At first, he was unable to find a place where he could serve as a surgeon but that turned out to be in his favor.


Norman had some experience administering blood transfusions. During the Civil War, he hit upon the idea of creating a mobile blood transfusion service to provide the front lines with blood donated by civilians. While the service was not the first of his kind, Norman’s service covered a much wider area of operation and helped revolutionize battlefield medicine. By the Second World War, the methods he had developed were commonplace in battle.

Norman went to England to purchase a van, refrigerator, and bottles for blood. He required 1,875 items for his transfusion unit, and he didn’t want to waste money paying dues at the border. The French government agreed to remove the duty if the Canadian government assured them that Norman was doctor engaged in humanitarian work.

Despite this being the case, the Canadian High Commissioner, Vincent Massey, the future Governor General, said,

“While the government has full sympathy of any efforts to relieve sufferers on either side of present Spanish conflict, it would not be possible in view of what appears to be the political complexion of the mission, to sponsor it by making a formal request as indicated.”

Essentially, this meant the federal government was not going to help a Communist in his efforts to save the lives of other Communists in Spain. Undeterred, Norman had funds raised through donations from supporters and friends, then the  team of three Canadians, an American and Spanish doctors travelled to Spain. They collected blood from donors and took his mobile service to the front lines, often as close as he could get, to provide blood transfusions directly to the soldiers.

His motto was, “Go to the wounded, don’t wait for the wounded to come to you.”

Norman would often drive 125 kilometres in the dark to deliver blood, under attack by enemy planes. One of his vans could carry as much as 90 gallons of blood. That was enough to help about 70 soldiers at a time. After the Spanish government took over the service t, Norman returned to Canada on June 6, 1937.

He arrived in steerage on the Queen Mary to save money. Back in Canada, Norman began a speaking tour to raise money and recruit volunteers for the Spanish Civil War. The Canadian government put pressure on venues to prevent him. With some success but

Norman only spent six months in Canada before he once again going abroad.

This time, to China.


In January 1938, Norman reached China with the Canadian-American Mobile Medical Unit where began to help the Communist forces of Mao Zedong.

At the time, China was engaged in a war against Japan, which had invaded the country. He stated,

“I’m too old, but there’s nothing I can do now. I have no money. I have no job. I have nothing. So, I am going to China.”

Dr. George Hatem, a Lebanese American doctor, helped Norman get settled in China and begin organizing medical services in the region. Almost immediately, and over two weeks news spread in Canada  that Norman had been killed while helping the wounded in China, that he was first reported missing and later presumed dead.

It wasn’t until Norman sent a telegram that the newspapers reported he was alive, to the relief of many who knew him. In China, Norman was appalled by the lack of surgical instruments and medicine, and the poor training of the staff working under him. At one point, he wrote in his diary that the only doctor he found in the area was also the dentist and druggist, and his shop was filled with wounded people waiting for dressings, for which they were charged one dollar each.

To remedy the situation, Norman began training nurses and doctors and invented various surgical instruments.

One was a wooden carrying case that allowed for easier transportation of supplies and drugs, while also allowing for an operating table to be set up for mobile units. He also used whatever he could find to help the wounded. In one case, he used wire as clamps and pieces of sharpened iron as instruments.

Another time, he was forced to use a wood saw to amputate a leg. In April 1938, he gave his own blood to a wounded soldier to convince villagers that they could donate blood without being impacted themselves. This led to the first blood donor clinic in China. In August and September of 1938, he supervised a five-week training program for staff.. On Sept. 15, 1938, he opened a permanent hospital to train doctors and nurses. Within a month, it was destroyed by Japanese forces.

At this point, Norman went back to focusing on establishing mobile medical teams to treat wounded on front lines.

During his time, Norman performed emergency battlefield surgical operations, but he did not distinguish between sides.

He simply aided whoever needed help. Through 1938, Norman stated he travelled 5,800 kilometres, performing 762 operations and examining 1,800 wounded civilians and soldiers. One excursion took him 300 kilometres through the mountains over 10 days, where he visited 13 villages, attended to 142 soldiers, and operated on 105. It was not uncommon for him to arrive in a village, and work for 40 hours without rest, and then move on to the next location.

In January 1939, he organized a week of medical training for nurses and doctors and wrote Organization and Technology of Division Field Hospitals in Guerrilla War. Throughout the spring, Norman worked constantly. During one period in April, he and his team performed 115 operations in 69 hours. Not surprisingly, the soldiers who fought for China were devoted to Norman.

According to one of his assistants, when the soldiers went into battle, they would yell,

“We fight at the front. If we are wounded, we have Bethune to treat us.”

In the summer of 1939, Norman was appointed the medical advisor to the Jin-Cha-Ji Border Region Military District. He also made plans to eventually return to Canada to fundraise to build a medical school in China.

He said, “The work I am trying to do is to take peasant boys and young workers and make doctors of them.”

But as they say the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry

On Oct. 29, 1939, Norman was helping a wounded soldier in the process, he cut his middle finger on bone fragments. Three days later on Nov. 1, while operating on another soldier, his wound opened again and became infected. The constant work and long hours helping wounded soldiers left him malnourished, and in a weakened state.

He had lost hair, was now deaf in one ear and his teeth and eyes were, in his words, in bad shape. A simple infection became something much worse. Sepsis, and on Nov. 12, 1939, he died.

The day before, he wrote,

“Today I feel really unwell. Probably I have to say farewell to you forever! Please send a letter to Tim Buck, the General Secretary of the Canadian Communist Party. The address is No.10, Wellington Street, Toronto, Canada. Please also make a copy for Committee on International Aid to China and Democratic Alliance of Canada, tell them, I am very happy here … Please give my Kodak Retina II camera to comrade Sha Fei.”

following his death, The Regina Leader-Post wrote,

“Happy warrior, crusader, fighter for the right as he appeared to see it, such was this intrepid spirit upon whom the sleep of death has fallen in a distant land. He saved many lives, and finally yielded his own in doing so.”

Due to his Communist ties, there were few memorials to him in Canada, and by the time the Second World War arrived, Norman was mostly forgotten, and remained so for decades.

It took nearly 40 years for any recognition. In 1970, Canada established diplomatic relations with China, and Norman became a common ground between the two countries.

After Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau travelled to China in 1973, the Government of Canada purchased the manse of the Presbyterian Church where Norman was born. He was also declared a Person of National Historic Significance. In 1976, Bethune Memorial House opened in Gravenhurst, and is now a National Historic Site. Dr. Norman Bethune Collegiate Institute was founded in Scarborough in 1979, and in 1998 Norman was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.

In Montreal, a public square is named for him, and a statue was erected there. Two postage stamps have also been issued in his honour.

However, in China, it was a completely different story, as recognition for Norman came decades earlier.


on Dec. 21, 1939After Norman died, Chairman Mao Zedong published his eulogy in an essay titled In Memory of Norman Bethune. This documented the final months of Bethune’s life and became required reading in China’s elementary schools by the 1960s.

Even today, it is in nearly all elementary school textbooks. It states, in part,

“Comrade Bethune’s spirit, his utter devotion to others without any thought of self, was shown in his great sense of responsibility in his work and his great warm-heartedness towards all comrades and the people. Every Communist must learn from him. … We must all learn the spirit of absolute selflessness from him.”

Countless books were written about him in China, and he even featured on postage stamps. Statuettes of him were sold in shops. and in there was an 800-bed hospital built in his honour The Norman Bethune International Peace Hospital

He was buried in China, On his tomb, the words of Mao Zedong are written, stating,

“Those who die for the country, never die.”

Today, Norman remains one of the few Westerners to have statues in China. And along with a hospital there’s also is the Norman Bethune University of Medical Science, the Bethune Hygiene School, the Bethune Medical School and Bethune Medical University. The Bethune Medal is awarded biannually in China to up to seven individuals who make an outstanding contribution in the medical field.

It is the highest medical honour in China.


Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Biographi, Bethune The Montreal Years, Wikipedia, Canadian Museum of History, Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, February 1946 Historical Bulletin, The Great Depression, Calgary Herald, Montreal Gazette, Montreal Star, Kingston Whig Standard, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Ottawa Citizen,

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