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Dr. Norman Bethune Biography

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Dr. Norman Bethune

Birthdate:   3 March 1890
Website: http://www.parkscanada.gc.ca/bethune
Category: Other

Norman Bethune (1830-1939) was born in Gravenhurst, Ontario. He went to the University of Toronto, where his education was interrupted when he enlisted as a stretcher bearer in World War I. He received his M.D. in 1916.

When Bethune became sick and was diagnosed with tuberculosis, he left Detroit for Calydor Sanitorium in Gravenhurst, Ontario. His wife, Frances, was determined to stay by his side, but Bethune demanded a divorce and sent Frances back to Scotland; Bethune had accepted his inevitable death, and didn't want to waste Frances' time. Even after their divorce, however, they frequently wrote to each other, remaining close.

Bethune had given up but a letter from the Trudeau sanatorium at Saranac Lake, New York allowing him admittance changed his life. While at Trudeau, Bethune read about a new and controversial treatment for tuberculosis called compression therapy, or artificial pnemothorax (insertion of air into the chest so as to collapse one lung either permanently or temporarily depending on the case). There were currently only 13 doctors in the world experienced in this technique; on was Dr. Archibald who was currently practicing in Montreal. Bethune, always a forceful character, demanded compression therapy and received in at Trudeau. His left lung was compressed, he recovered and was cured. Bethune left Trudeau for Montreal to study thoracic surgery under Dr. Archibald.

From 1928 to 1936, Bethune worked as a thoracic surgeon in Montreal. He became famous there for his treatment of tuberculosis patients. Although he cured hundreds of cases successfully, many of his poorer patients became ill again when they returned to crowded, unsanitary homes. Bethune realized they could not be cured without proper living conditions and medical care. He wanted the medical system to provide the same level of health care for everyone. Bethune, and others with similar ideas, developed a plan for socialized medicine. However, when they presented it to the government they received a strong negative reaction. Bethune became unpopular among other doctors who thought his ideas were too radical.

At the time that the Spanish Civil War was raging (1936-1939), a spokesman from the Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy visited Bethune. The Committee had chosen Bethune, if he would accept, to head the Canadian Medical Unit in Madrid. Bethune was one of the top paid doctors in Canada, 39, and one of the world's top thoracic surgeons. He found it a hard decision to make, but left for Madrid on November 3, 1936.

While in Spain, Bethune did pioneering work with blood transfusions, developing the world's first mobile medical unit. This whole unit contained dressings for 500 wounds, and enough supplies and medicine for 100 operations. It could also be carried by just one mule. The service collected blood from donors and delivered it to hospitals and to soldiers at the battlefront. On many occasions, Bethune risked his life to deliver blood to the front line. Bethune and his colleagues discovered difficulties with some patients, however, in that the blood they transfused didn't work, and the patient died. The discovery of blood types by Dr. Landsteiner solved this mystery. Bethune returned to Canada on June 6, 1937.

In 1938, Bethune went to China to help Mao Tse-tung and the Red Army fight the Japanese. He became the Red Army�s Medical Chief and trained thousands of Chinese as medics and doctors. He also designed the world�s first mobile medical unit despite limited equipment. The unit saved the lives of many soldiers. Unfortunately, Bethune soon lost his life assisting the Chinese. He died on November 12, 1939, from blood poisoning. The world lost a great unselfish hero with Bethune�s death.


A Resource List on Dr. Norman Bethune


Ted Allan and Sydney Gordon, The Scalpel, The Sword. Montreal: McClelland and Stewart, 1952, revised 1971, reprinted 1981.

Linda Capacchione, Jim Endicott and Caroline Perly (english ed.s), Bethune: His Story in Pictures. Toronto: NC Press, 1975. This is the second release in the series entitled- Toward a People’s Art. (based on the Chinese picture book entitled Dr. Bethune. Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Publishing House.)

Chih-cheng Chung, Norman Bethune in China. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1975.

Anne Corkett, Norman Bethune. Series- People Who Have Helped the World. Milwaukee: Gareth Stevens Children’s Books,1990.

Sylvia DuVernet, Canada-China Cultural Exchanges. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989.

Jean Ewen, China Nurse: 1932-1939. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1981.

Larry Hannant, The Politics of Passion: Bethune’s Writing and Art. University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Libby Park, Stanley Ryerson and Wendell MacLeod, Bethune: The Montreal Years. Toronto: James Lorimer & Co., 1978.

David A.E. Shepard and Andree Levesque (ed.s), Norman Bethune: His Times and His Legacy. Ottawa: Canadian Public Health Association, 1982.

Mary Larratt Smith, Prologue to Norman: The Canadian Bethunes. Oakville: Mosaic Press, 1976.

Roderick Stewart, Bethune. Markham: General Publishing Co., 1975.

Roderick Stewart, Norman Bethune. Toronto: Fitzhenry and Whiteside,1974. Series- Famous Canadians.

Roderick Stewart, The Mind of Norman Bethune. Toronto: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1977.

John Wilson, Norman Bethune: A Passionate Life for grades 12 and up.

Righting Wrongs for the grade 6 to 8 age group. Toronto: Napoleon Press

Valerie Wyatt, The Kids Can Book of Canadian Firsts.



Rod Langley, Bethune. Vancouver: Talon Books, 1975.

Ken Mitchell, Gone the Burning Sun. Playwright’s Union of Canada, 1984


National Film Board of Canada, Bethune. 1964.

Telefilm Canada, Bethune: The Making of a Hero. 1990. New release 1994 has been renamed Dr. Bethune.

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Last updated: 16-09-07      Hits: 13248