Friday, November 12, 2010

The Death of Dr. Norman Bethune

Though he lived but a short time, Dr. Norman Bethune certainly had a full life; born in March 1890 in Gravenhurst, Ontario, and educated at the University of Toronto, and later taught thoracic surgery at McGill University in Montreal.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketHe served in Europe during World War I, as a stretcher-bearer; upon his return to Canada he became an early proponent of universal health care. In 1935 he joined the Communist Party of Canada, and thereafter devoted the short remainder of his life to the battle against fascism.

While serving in Spain during the Spanish Civil War (1936-7) he devised the Mobile Surgical Army Hospitals made famous by the TV show M*A*S*H; he also came up with a way to transport blood, improving the odds of surviving combat injuries for untold numbers of soldiers.

After leaving Spain Bethune traveled to China (1938-9), where he conducted field surgery with the Communist Eighth Route Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War. It was there on this day in 1939 he died of blood poisoning from a cut he received while in the commission of his duty.

Virtually unknown in Canada during his lifetime, Bethune's memory was revived by the writings of Mao Zedong, who championed Bethune's selflessness and bravery. He's one of the few Westerners commemorated in China, where there are numerous hospitals named for him, as well as ubiquitous statuary.

His controversial legacy has meant he's less honoured in his home country, although that began to change by the mid 1970s; his birthplace, for instance, is now a National Historic Site, and there is a statue of him in Montreal. He's also been twice portrayed in films by that other Canadian icon, Donald Sutherland.
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