Norman Bethune Biography


Birthday: March 4, 1890 (Pisces)

Born In: Gravenhurst, Canada

Norman Bethune was a great physician who dedicated his services for the welfare of humanity. His works were focused mainly on the poor in Canada. He is known best for his service during the World War I. He is revered as a unique personality in the history of medicine, owing to the materialization of the concept of ‘mobile medical unit’ into realization. He deployed his efforts, skills and prodigious energy in teaching, inventing surgical instruments and encouraging social justice. Some of the surgical tools developed by him are used in surgeries even now. Norman Bethune was a dynamic person and an inspirational figure who did his best to save other’s life. Bethune is still remembered in Canada as a medical genius, while in China he is revered as a saint. His enduring medical achievements made him a hero in the People’s Republic of China. Read more to find out about this renowned personality in medicine.

Quick Facts

Canadian Celebrities Born In March

Also Known As: Henry Norman Bethune

Died At Age: 49


Spouse/Ex-: Frances Penney (m. 1929–1933)

father: Rev. Malcolm Nicolson Bethune

mother: Elizabeth

siblings: Janet, Malcolm

Born Country: Canada

Surgeons Canadian Men

Died on: November 12, 1939

place of death: Tang County, Baoding, China

discoveries/inventions: Developing Mobile Medical Units

More Facts

education: University of Toronto, Owen Sound Collegiate and Vocational Institute

Childhood & Early Life

Norman Bethune was born Henry Norman Bethune, on March 4, 1890, in Gravenhurst, Ontario, Canada, to Malcolm Nicholson Bethune and Elizabeth Ann Goodwin. While his father worked as a small-time pastor, Norman was born into a prominent Scottish family. His family hails from a Bethune/Beaton Medical Kindred, whose main occupation was practising medicine from the middle ages to the modern era.

Norman was raised with two siblings. He was described as a curious young man who wandered around unattended just to explore the city. He was also highly interested in his grandfather’s profession as a surgeon.

He enrolled into the Owen Sound Collegiate Institute, from where he graduated in 1907. Following that, he worked as a teacher for a couple of years and later enrolled at the University of Toronto. There, he studied biochemistry and physiology. After taking a break in 1911 to volunteer at the Reading Camp Association, he resumed his education at the university in 1912. This time, he changed his subjects and opted to study medicine.

He was accepted into the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps before he could graduate with a medical degree in 1914. He served for Canada in the First World War and was stationed in France as a stretcher-bearer for the Canadian army. However, he got wounded with shrapnel during the war and was treated for his wounds in an English hospital.

He was eventually shifted to Canada and after he recovered from his war wounds, he shifted back to Toronto and resumed his education. He earned his M.D. from the University of Toronto in 1916.

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Following his graduation, he rejoined the Canadian armed forces as the war was still ongoing. He was made the lieutenant surgeon in the Royal Canadian Navy. He was eventually transferred to the Canadian Flying Corps, where he served until the end of the war.

Norman decided to stay back in Europe after the war and practised surgery as a surgical house officer in London and Edinburgh for three years. For his services, he was awarded the status of Fellow of the Royal College of Edinburgh.

He later moved to America and shifted to Detroit. Detroit was a fast-expanding region in the mid-1920s and hence, the opportunities were good for surgeons. Within the next decade, he became one of the best known thoracic surgeons in the area. By then, he had also become active in social activism and also taught at Wayne State University.

In 1926 came a major setback for Norman when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. At that time, there was no specific treatment for TB, and it was akin to a death sentence. The patients were only told to take bed rest in a sanatorium. But Norman was not the one to give up. He heard about a radical new TB treatment called pneumothorax, which involved causing inactivity to the affected lung, allowing it to rest and heal itself.

Norman studied the way the treatment worked and was sure of its effectiveness. He insisted that he be treated with the treatment. However, the physicians were too doubtful about the ‘new and risky’ treatment. After Norman insisted more, he was given the treatment and made a full recovery.

By the late 1920s, he had become more curious about the thoracic surgery field and he contacted the pioneer of the field, Dr Edward William Archibald, and joined him. From 1928 to 1934, Norman excelled in the field and invented 12 new tools for thoracic surgery, such as Bethune Rib Sheers. The equipment is also used to this day, in thoracic surgeries. In order to describe the way his innovations worked, he published 14 articles.

Over time, Norman became severely concerned about the socio-economic aspects of thoracic diseases. He wanted to radicalise the healthcare system in Canada which was reeling from an economic depression in the 1930s. During that time, he provided free medical care to the poor and needy.

In 1935, he visited the Soviet Union to understand how a universal free healthcare system works. He liked what the Communist Party was doing there and influenced with the ideology, he became a staunch communist. He moved back to Canada and joined the Communist Party of Canada.

During the Spanish Civil War outbreak of 1936, he offered his help and moved there to treat the wounded. However, he could not find the place where his help was needed. But he did not give up and based on his limited experience in blood transfusion, he started a mobile blood transfusion service. He took the blood donated by the civilians and drove it to the war zone to help the wounded soldiers in need of blood.

He returned back to Canada in 1937 and further gathered more help for the wounded in the Spanish Civil War. The war ended in 1939 and Norman’s contribution was immensely respected. In his memory, the Walk of Canadians was opened in 2006, in Malaga, Spain.

China was also reeling through the second Sino-Japanese War in the late 1930s. Norman further focused his attention on Asia and moved to China in 1939. There, he met the Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong. Norman once again began providing medical help to the wounded and arranged for medical training of the nurses and doctors. He did not only help the Chinese side during the war, but he also treated the Japanese soldiers.

Chinese government publicly acknowledged Norman’s contribution to the war. Following his demise, Mao Zedong published a eulogy ‘In Memory of Norman Bethune’, which contained the documentation of his final years working in China. The essay was made compulsory to be studied by the Chinese students and some Chinese elementary textbooks still have the essay read by the young students.

Personal Life & Death

Norman Bethune met Frances Penny in 1920 and married her in 1923. However, the couple had a divorce around the time when Norman contracted TB. They remarried in 1929 and had no children.

While he was helping the wounded during the Sino-Japanese War in the late 1930s, he cut his finger, which later became infected. It became the cause of his death as he passed away on November 2, 1939. He was 49 years old at the time of his demise.

After his death, he received more recognition in China than in his native land Canada. He is one of the very few westerners having statues erected in their memories in China. Many other institutions were also named after him.

See the events in life of Norman Bethune in Chronological Order

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