Posted by: Bob Fisher | January 11, 2014

Norman Bethune: A Doctor Without Borders

… with Colin Old

To listen to PART ONE of this podcast, click here.

To listen to PART TWO of this podcast, click here.

An unlikely hero

Norman Bethune’s self-portrait is, like the man himself, markedly enigmatic. On the one hand, it is obviously a good likeness — one gets a sense that he knew himself quite well — but on the other hand, there is something almost defiant in his depiction of himself. It is as if he is daring the viewer to to get inside his head. The glaring expression, severe and arching eyebrows, slightly cruel mouth, penetrating falcon-like eyes, and the rigid head-on position might suggest a criminal’s mug shot. A child might see an evil man. And yet, history records this man as being a hero — in particular to the more than one and a quarter billion Chinese — and a humanitarian.

The Parks Canada National Historic Site plaque outside the house in which he was born — in the pastoral town of Gravenhurst, Ontario — is as direct and sober as Bethune’s self-portrait.

Dr. Henry Norman Bethune 1890-1939

An internationally-famed humanitarian, surgeon and revolutionary. Bethune was born in this house. He graduated from the University of Toronto’s medical school during the First World War and saw extensive service in that conflict. While at Montreal’s Royal Victoria hospital 1929-1933 he gained widespread recognition as a thoracic surgeon. Increasing concern with social and political issues took him to Spain in 1936 where he organized Canadian medical aid for the Loyalist troops and set up the world’s first mobile blood transfusion unit. Two years later he went to China and until his death worked tirelessly as a surgeon and medical adviser with the 8th Route National Revolutionary Army. He is buried in the Mausoleum of Martyrs, Shi Cha Chang, China.

A curious anomaly

The town of Gravenhurst is in many ways the essence of Muskoka, Canada’s popular and legendary “cottage country.” However, the legends and traditions of Muskoka are those of the early days of the Canadian frontier, the eventual wilderness getaway for harried urbanites that the region would become, and a repository for quiet Canadian character development. Gravenhurst is not the stuff of revolutionaries; or so one would have thought.

As you turn the corner onto leafy John Street, you may not initially notice the graceful Victorian house set back from the street on an ample corner lot. However, in front of the property next door a Chinese-red sign with three Chinese characters, a stylized image in black and white of a pensive balding man, and one English word declaring “Bethune,” interrupts the visual flow of this quintessential small town Ontario street.

The visual dissonance is quite appropriate given the story that unfolds inside the two properties, one now a museum dedicated to Dr. Norman Bethune, the other a manse, his birthplace, and a Canadian National Historic Site. Inside the visitor becomes quickly engaged in the story of one of the most resolute and colourful characters in Canadian history.

Far and beyond Gravenhurst

Born in this comfortable house, Norman Bethune died in a peasant’s hut in China. His professional life was short but momentous; there is no doubt that he achieved great things. This was a man celebrated on his death by none other than Mao Tse-tung, the leader of China’s Communist Revolution. Mao’s commentary on the life of this Canadian, “In Memory of Norman Bethune”, became required reading for Chinese students and the population in general.

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. — Mao Tse-tung

The story of Norman Bethune is generally well-known to Canadians as well, although I dare say that the full sense of the man may be rather vaguely understood by most — as it was to me. But a visit to his place of birth will paint the full picture in all its hues and shades. This may well be why we visit the birthplaces of famous people. It’s not really a question of making a pilgrimage to an honoured site (I suspect that would certainly not have pleased Norman), but rather going to an actual physical and geographical location associated with the person in some significant way, a touchstone to the past.

Born in what was then a small lumbering town north of Toronto, Norman Bethune was not an ordinary child, demonstrating early in life a character of stubbornness and self-determination. He was also a child who wandered both literally and in his imagination; an imagination that in later life would be seen to be the workings of a mind that was intent on problem-solving, especially in the most difficult circumstances — such as the Spanish Civil War and the Communist Revolution in China.

Having trained as a doctor — despite the fact that his studies were interrupted by a stint in the First World War (he was wounded at Ypres) — Bethune went on to become a pioneer in the medical field, an accomplished thoracic surgeon, a social activist who was one of the first to promote universal health care in North America, an inventor of medical devices (some of which are still in use today), an artist, and a member of the Communist Party.

Marrying into a prominent family, Bethune first practised in the American city of Detroit where he was exposed to social inequities in terms of health care, a moral outrage that he would experience even more when he eventually moved to Montréal which was in the throes of the Great Depression and where one third of the population was out of work and without medical care. Before his move to Montréal however, Bethune contracted tuberculosis which in those days was often a sentence of death. After spending time at a sanatorium in Gravenhurst itself, he was eventually admitted to the Trudeau Sanatorium in Saranac Lake, New York. For Bethune, it was the first real low point in his life; a “dance of death” as he himself called it. One of his paintings from that time is on display in the Bethune House. It is a child-like image that is almost frenetic in its detail and petulant in its tone and theme. The sanatorium is depicted as a castle-like structure on which is fixed a large and foreboding red cross. In the foreground slumped in a chaise longue is a solitary Norman Bethune. You can feel the anger and frustration of the man.

However, Bethune was not defeated — not yet. As was always the case throughout his life, he eventually refused to give in. Having researched his own disease, he presented his doctors with an ultimatum; either they perform a risky and innovative procedure on him or he would do it himself. Because he was the type of person to whom one could rarely say no, the operation was performed and was successful. And then he was off to Montréal to resume his interrupted career.

It was in Montréal that his career as a “revolutionary” thoracic surgeon and innovative medical practitioner intensified, but not without considerable controversy and personal and professional discord. The “hero” Norman Bethune was beginning to emerge but this was no shining knight on a noble steed. His flamboyant personal life and marital ups and downs (he married and divorced his wife Frances twice) added a whole other dimension to his growing reputation as an alternative thinker and doer.

War and health care

In 1936, Bethune organized in Montréal what was a for the times a radical group, The Montreal Group for the Security of the People’s Health, sponsored by like-minded medical personnel. And in that same year he joined the Communist Party. As fate would have it, Bethune’s moral outrage at the injustices of human society would be given an even greater voice when the Spanish Civil War broke out in the summer of that same year. It was a challenge that Bethune could not ignore; and so he set off for Spain as a medical volunteer under the auspices of the Canadian agency The Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy.

It was in Spain that Bethune achieved what is considered one of the greatest medical innovations in military history. As with any war, soldiers were dying in great numbers at the front far from the medical resources they urgently needed. And foremost amongst these resources was human blood. Bethune took stock of the situation very quickly and, always the pragmatist, set up a mobile blood bank that would bring this most essential of medical procedures directly to the wounded, as opposed to their having to come to him. Today it may seem simple, but at that time and in that context it was a revolutionary idea and procedure. And it worked, saving many lives.

But Bethune would eventually experience worse atrocities in Spain — the indiscriminate bombing of civilians, refugees fleeing the cities. And, as we all now know, the outcome of that war led to a fascist state under Franco and defeat of what, for Bethune certainly, were the forces of democracy. Eventually he returned to Canada exhausted, demoralized, and very angry.

It was not long however before Bethune found his next “mission.” Another major world conflict was underway; the Second Sino-Japanese War which would eventually lead to the Communist Revolution in that country. And Bethune was there with a nurse and $5000 of medical supplies. When he arrived at the Communist headquarters in Yenan, he met Mao who asked him to help the cause by supervising the Eighth Route Army Border Hospital. But as usual Bethune felt he would be of more use in the thick of things and headed to the front, the isolated and mountainous border region of Chin-C’a. Once again, he discovered appalling medical conditions and very quickly had to devise a whole new strategy. This time he became Norman Bethune the medical educator, teaching the basics of first aid, sanitation, and even basic surgery to his version of “barefoot doctors.” But training such medical personnel was still not enough because, as always, getting treatment to the wounded on the field of battle was a first priority. Once again, he literally mobilized his medical services, including a portable operating room that was carried on the backs of two mules, and thus he took emergency medical care to the front lines.

Word spread that a foreigner, now known as Pai Ch’iu-en (Bethune phonetically in Chinese), had joined the soldiers in battle. His name even became a battle cry: “Attack! Pai Ch’iu-en is with us!”

Norman Bethune was a long way away from Gravenhurst, Ontario, geographically, culturally, and conceptually. But in another sense, this son of a Baptist minister and grandson of a medical doctor was where he had always been, at the core of a personal struggle for international cooperation and humanitarianism.

But this hero of the People’s Republic of China was human, and also vulnerable. While operating in the field, he cut his finger with a scalpel. Sepsis set in and he died very soon thereafter as a result of the blood poisoning that invaded his body.

Statues and monuments to Norman Bethune can be found throughout China, and at the Mausoleum of Martyrs there has been erected an heroic larger-than-life statue of him. At his birthplace in Gravenhurst, Ontario, an eloquent and respectful celebration of his life continues.

Colin Old is the Communications Officer at the Bethune House. As a geographer especially, he understands the impact that land, landscape, and culture have on our psyches. In the two-part dialogue I had with Colin, he brings a perspective to the story of Norman Bethune that helps give a greater sense of the man.


The Norman Bethune House

Parks Canada, a federal government agency, administers and and maintains a great network of nationally significant examples of Canada’s natural and cultural heritage across the country. Each site or region is a destination unto itself and part of the collective legacy of Canadians. To visit the website click here.

The Norman Bethune house is at the heart of one of Canada’s best-loved vacation areas, Muskoka. To discover more about the region, read Muskoka: Cottage Country Canadian-style.

The Canadian Encylopedia’s article on Norman Bethune.

Gravenhurst Ontario

Chinese Posters featuring Norman Bethune.

“Chinese still cherish memory of Norman Bethune” (from The People’s Daily)

The Norman Bethune “Resource Library”

1. The Scalpel, the Sword: the Story of Doctor Norman Bethune

2. Roderick Stewart’s Bethune (a radio interview from the archives of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)

3. The Mind of Norman Bethune

4. Bethune: The Montreal Years

5. A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation film, starring Donald Sutherland: Bethune

6. To commemorate the centenary of his birth in March 1990, Canada and China each issued two postage stamps of the same design in his honour.

7. Wikipedia and Norman Bethune

8. Bethune: The Making of a Hero, again starring Donald Sutherland (See the trailer for the film.)

9. Norman Bethune is inducted in The Medical Hall of Fame in 1998

10. The Politics of Passion: Norman Bethune’s Writing and Art

11. Norman Bethune: A Life of Passionate Conviction

12. Norman Bethune: His Times and His Legacy, Canadian Public Health Association, 1982

13. Norman Bethune: Doctor for the People

14. Extraordinary Canadians Norman Bethune

15. Dr. Norman Bethune: Montrealer and Internationalist (In  2009, Montreal declares the year to be one of homage to Norman Bethune.)

The inauguration of the Bethune statue in Montreal, with former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson

16. Bethune, by Roderick Stewart (from the series “The Canadians”)

17. The National Film Board of Canada’s documentary film Bethune, by renowned documentary film-maker Donald Brittain

18. The Bethune International Peace Hospital, Shijiazhuang, China. To learn more about this hospital and its work in stem cell research, click on the following link which will take you to a PDF file. It is a fascinating journey in itself. See also Bethune International Peace Hospital, Shijiazhuang.

19. Dr Norman Bethune’s Tomb at Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery Shijiazhuang, China.

20. The Norman-Bethune Public Health campus at the University of Montreal is expected to be completed in four years.

21. The most recent and “definitive” biography of Bethune is Phoenix: The Life of Norman Bethune. It is also considered by some to be the most authoritative biography of him.

The statue of Bethune in Gravenhurst, the town of his birth

One of the most iconic images of Bethune, operating in the open air in China



  1. The latest and most authoritative biography of Bethune is Phoenix The Life of Norman Bethune (McGill-Queens University Press, May 2011) by Roderick Stewart and Sharon Stewart. For more information please visit

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