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.
Norman Bethune was son of Rev. Malcolm Nicolson Bethune, a small town pastor, in Gravenhurst, Canada. He had two siblings—a sister Janet and brother Malcolm. He attended Owen Sound Collegiate and Vocational Institute (OSCVI) and graduated from there in the year 1907. He then joined the University of Toronto in 1909. He took one-year break from studies in 1911 and volunteered as a laborer-teacher with Frontier College, educating mine laborers to read and write English. He once again put his medical education in hold in 1914, when the First World War was declared. With the intense feel of patriotism from within, he decided to join the No. 2 Field Ambulance in France as stretcher bearer. He had to spend three months in an English hospital as he was wounded by shrapnel. After recovering from injuries, he went back to Toronto to pursue medical education and completed his M.D. in 1916. He then joined the Royal Navy and then moved to Canadian Air Force.
Towards the mid 1920s, Norman enrolled for medical studies in London and Edinburgh, and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in the year 1922. Two years later, he opened up a private medical practice in Detroit, Michigan. Unfortunately, his health deteriorated during this time. He discovered that both of his lungs were affected by tuberculosis and consulted the famous Trudeau Sanatorium in New York for treatment. While at Trudeau, Bethune came across a new and considerably controversial treatment referred to as ‘compression therapy’ for tuberculosis or artificial pneumothorax. This turned out to be successful and he recovered completely.
In the year 1928, he served as the first assistant of Dr. Edward Archibald, a Canadian surgeon and innovator, in thoracic surgery in Montreal, Quebec at McGill University. During the next eight years, Bethune invented several surgical instruments and new surgical techniques and consequently, was considered as a prominent name in the international medical community. He wanted to help those who could not afford the expenses of the medical treatment and so, opened up a private free clinic for the welfare of the tuberculosis-infected patients. With regard to the purpose of following a socialized medicine operation in U.S.S.R, he attended the International Physiological Congress in Moscow in the year 1935. In order to promote the introduction of a state medical care system, he set up a campaign in Canada after returning from Moscow. He expressed his views openly, which alienated him from his colleagues. He joined the Communist Party of Canada in 1936.
Outbreak of Spanish Civil War
Soon after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he gave up his job and rendered his services to the Spanish Republican Government. He also set up a mobile blood transfusion service in November 1936, so as to rush to the warfront with bottles of blood in the refrigerated trucks. This was something unique of its kind, and helped saving many lives. He reached China in 1938, as head of the medical team. In January 1938, he went for a journey covering more than 600 miles from Hong Kong, where the Chinese Eighth Right Army headquarters was situated. There, among the rugged mountains towards the west of Beijing, he initiated a medical field service and constructed makeshift hospital throughout the entire region. He also held various other contributions such as writing textbooks on elementary medicine and surgery and also trained the young Chinese to follow the basic medical techniques.
Norman Bethune went to London and enrolled in an internship program, specializing in children’s disease, at the Great Ormond Street in 1919. Later, he went to Edinburgh for the FRCS at the Royal College of Surgeons, England. There he met Frances Penny and fell in love with her. They got married in 1923 and went for a year-long ‘Grand Tour of Europe’, for which they spent their entire inheritance. They moved to Detroit, Michigan and Bethune took up private practice and also worked part time as a trainer at the Detroit College of Medicine and Surgery. Once diagnosed for Tuberculosis, he asked for a divorce from his wife as he thought he was dying, and asked her to return back to Scotland, her native. Bethune recovered and wrote to his ex-wife proposing to get married again. Though she refused the proposal first, they got married again in 1929. But their marriage did not last long and they got divorced in 1933.
During 1929 to 1936, Bethune developed several new surgical tools. The development of the world’s first mobile medical unit was his prominent contribution to the field of medicine. He went to China in 1938, as the Red Army’s Medical Chief,in order to help Mao Tse-tung and the Red Army to compete with the Japanese. Unfortunately, Bethune lost his life on 12 November 1939 as a result of blood poisoning (septicaemia). He was buried in the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery, Shijiazhuang, in the Hebei Province of China. This marked an end to a selfless hero, Norman Bethune.
Bethune received remarkable international recognition when Mao Tse-tung, the Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, published a tribute titled ’In Memory of Norman Bethune’ that narrated his final months in China. China has also dedicated statues to this great personality and he is one of few Westerners to receive such a tribute. In Canada, his statue is erected in Montreal’s Norman Bethune Square. In the year 1972, Dr. Bethune was regarded as ‘Person of National Historic Significance’.
Norman Bethune Medal established in 1991, is considered to be the highest honor in terms of medicine in China, which was bestowed by the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Personnel of China.