Thought in Action

A passionate doctor’s journey through war zones in Spain and China.

Norman Bethune spent less than two years in northern China, but during that time he worked feverishly. When he was not at the front, directly providing for the injured, he devoted much of his time and energy trying to transform peasant boys into medical assistants. He did not rest when things quieted down. At the very least, he would spend that time catching up on his correspondence, perhaps sitting in the sun outside his mud hut at one of the communist rear bases, where he was often seen typing furiously at his machine, drafting yet another dispatch to sympathetic friends and organizations overseas. In these letters, many of which never reached their destinations, he invariably asked for more funds, more medical supplies, more help. In Mao’s camps, almost everything was in short supply.

On the worst days, however, when the Japanese were on the offensive and it seemed the flow of mutilated Chinese partisans would never stop, Bethune barely had a minute to rest: on one occasion, he operated on 71 cases in roughly 40 hours. Contemporary photographs, some of which are currently on display at the “Norman Bethune: Trail of Solidarity — La huella solidaria” exhibit at the McCord Museum of Canadian History in Montreal, present an emaciated man, barely 50, but looking at least a decade older. Here, he is bent over a patient on an operating table in what must have been a very uncomfortable position. There, his cheeks hollowed, he frowns at an unconscious soldier, presumably trying to quickly assess whether anything can be done to save him. Despite the obvious hardship, strength and confidence emanates from his presence and he appears entirely focused on the task at hand: saving one more life.

Yet even a dedicated and hyperactive man such as Bethune could not work at such a hectic pace forever without making mistakes. We know he often operated without gloves and that he regularly sliced his fingers. In early November 1939, he cut himself one more time. Had he been working too quickly? Had his lack of sleep caused his attention to fail for one brief moment? We shall never know. But this time, infection set in. Tired, sick and malnourished as he was, his immune system was in no condition to cope. He died of blood poisoning just a few days later, on the morning of the 12th of November.

In one of the latest additions to John Ralston Saul’s series on “Extraordinary Canadians,” Adrienne Clarkson paints a captivating, if somewhat lopsided, portrait of the famous doctor, one that, for the most part, steers clear of his infamous womanizing, heavy drinking and purported nastiness toward anyone who got in his way. Rather, Clarkson focuses on Bethune’s numerous achievements and makes use, for the first time, of the pri- vate journals of the painter Marian Dale Scott, with whom Bethune had a brief, intense but apparently entirely platonic relationship.

Although not entirely forgotten in Canada, Bethune, like so many others, seems to have slipped somewhat under the radar of our national consciousness. Yet, in China, every high school student knows who he is and what he did. He is their “greatest foreign hero,” one known as “Bai Qiu En—The Light Who Pursues Kindness.” With the 70th anniversary of Bethune’s death this November and the 120th anniversary of his birth next March, this is an ideal moment to re-examine his life. One hopes Clarkson’s biography and the McCord show are only the first of a number of events celebrating the legacy of this exceptional man.

Norman Bethune was born in 1890, in Gravenhurst, a small town 180 kilometres north of Toronto, just south of Lake Muskoka. His father, a Presbyterian minister, often moved from one parish to another, so the family travelled a lot. They never stayed in one place long enough to allow Bethune or his brother and sister to plant roots. Despite a somewhat tense relationship with his parents, especially with his dour father, Bethune nonetheless seems to have had a happy and comfortable childhood. The family had inherited some wealth and this allowed them to travel to England to visit relatives on a few occasions.

As a teenager, Clarkson tells us, Bethune “loved sports and was not particularly interested in things intellectual.” Few must thus have been surprised when, after graduating from high school, he decided to go to work for a year in the bush camps of northern Ontario. Later on, after he had entered the University of Toronto as a medical student, Bethune would return to the lumber camps, this time as a labourer-teacher for Frontier College.

With hindsight, the second period Bethune spent upcountry was a momentous one. While he worked as an axeman during the day, he spent his nights teaching lumberjacks how to read and write. Many of these men were recent immigrants who barely spoke English. Almost all of them were older than he. One of the first photographs at the McCord presents a young Bethune, striking a confident if somewhat cocky pose, amid a group of bearded men, hands solidly on his hips, his bush hat askew, gazing straight at the camera. This, we feel, is the mien of a leader. To Alfred Fitzpatrick, the founder of Frontier College, Bethune must have been the perfect embodiment of the labourer-teacher he was so desperately looking for: just, honest and brave people, “clean in life and lip, yet straightforward,” who would become moulders of “Canadianism.” Bethune was barely 21 years old.

Adventure had drawn Bethune to the camps. He left them with a budding commitment to social causes that would never leave him. In subsequent years, his experience first as a stretcher bearer during the First World War and then as a doctor in the slums of Detroit and Montreal, combined with voracious reading habits, would allow him to develop the intellectual framework he needed to give broader meaning to his work. For Bethune, thought and action were two sides of the same coin. He believed that individuals did not simply “live alongside history.” They “entered [it] and had a relationship with it.” This disposition is what led him first to Spain and then, fatefully, to China.

Did Bethune change history? Probably not, at least not in any significant way, but in the context of some of the 20th century’s most important conflicts, he played a meaningful role, directly and indirectly, in saving thousands of lives. In Spain, for example, with the help of a small group of dedicated colleagues, he set up the Servicio Canadiense de Transfusion de Sangre, the first mobile blood transfusion unit. The idea, which Bethune did not invent although he was the first to put it successfully into practice, was to develop the technical means for bringing blood directly to injured soldiers on the battlefield—until then, many of them simply bled to death before they could reach the nearest hospital for treatment. In a Ford car he had bought in London and fitted with an Electrolux refrigerator to keep at the right temperature dozens of glass bottles filled with blood, Bethune and his team roamed the countryside, days at a time, from one battle front to another.

Just over a third of the pictures presented at the McCord Museum exhibit devastated villages and forlorn Spanish refugees with nowhere to go, scenes of utter despair that Goya would have recognized instantly. While Bethune appears in none of these photographs, we immediately understand what drew him to Spain: disease, injustice, poverty. It is these, Clarkson tells us, that Bethune wanted to fight, the “enemies of the kind of life that he felt humans must have.” He gave as good as he got.