An extraordinary career in Montreal, Spain and China

BETHUNE IN MONTREAL (l928-l936)

BETHUNE IN SPAIN (l936-1937)

BETHUNE IN CHINA (1938-1939)

BETHUNE IN MONTREAL (l928-l936)
“I refuse to live in a world that breeds corruption and murder.”

In Montreal, memories of Dr Norman Bethune are closely associated with:

1.

His crusade against tuberculosis:
  Barely cured of tuberculosis himself, Bethune had one of the most productive periods of his entire career during his time in Montreal. In eight years, driven by his determination to eliminate the “white plague” and save lives, he perfected his skills as a physician and surgeon and became well known in his field. He gave papers at many conferences here and abroad and published over a dozen articles in the most renowned scientific journals in the Americas.

2.

His own innovations:
 

a)

He invented or redesigned most of the surgical instruments and apparatus he used as a thoracic surgeon, for example, the pneumothorax apparatus and rib shears.

b)

His name was associated with a number of apparatus and instruments that he designed and were manufactured by the Pilling Company in the United States.
c) His surgical practices were controversial.

 

3.

His attack on poverty during the Great Depression (when a third of Montrealers lived in poverty) when he became aware of the social and environmental components of disease:
 

a)

He opened a free public clinic for the unemployed;

b)

In 1935, he founded the Montreal Group for the Security of the People’s Health, that advocated measures eventually adopted by the health care system instituted in Québec in the 1960s. Composed of representatives of the main health professions, this group was the first of its kind to put forward a program for socialized medicine in Canada;
c) With his artist friend Fritz Brandtner, Bethune founded an art centre in his home for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

 

Through his social and political actions, Bethune became the figure we know today: the enfant terrible of his profession, the champion of socialized medicine and the communist. A man of integrity and action, events in his time left him no choice. “It was the people of Montreal, Spain and China who forged his social and political conscience” in the tumultuous years of the history of democracy.

To pay tribute to Norman Bethune and mark the 80th anniversary of his arrival in Montreal, the City and its partners—Concordia University, the Centre d’histoire de Montréal, McCord Museum, La Fondation Aubin and others—are organizing many events starting this fall. The year of activities will close with the 70th anniversary of Bethune’s death in November 2009. On that occasion, the City wants to have the posthumous title of Distinguished Montrealer conferred on him.

BETHUNE IN SPAIN  (l936-1937)
“I didn’t come to Spain to spill blood but to give it.”

He was one of the most effective communicators in North America of the message that Spain could be the tomb of fascism if money and arms could be supplied to the Republic.

1.

His medical contribution:
 

a)

He developed free civilian blood donations on a large scale, an innovative and highly successful idea.

b)

He and his colleagues set up the Canadian Blood Transfusion Service, whose novel feature was that it could carry blood to the wounded at the front thereby reducing blood loss and saving lives.

c)

Mobile transfusion services, the most important medical contribution to the war in Spain, were adopted by the Allies in World War II and after the war by the Red Cross.

 

2.

His contribution as a propagandist:
 

a)

He helped improve Canada’s image worldwide. He openly declared his solidarity with the anti-fascist struggle by painting on his vehicles the words “Canadian Blood Transfusion Service.” This was one of the first manifestations of Canadians’ nationalism, at a time when these British subjects weren’t used to expressing their patriotism.

b)

He was the central figure of Herbert Kline’s Heart of Spain, a documentary that paid tribute to the Spanish people’s courage. The film served to raise funds for the Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, when Bethune returned to Canada and embarked on a North American speaking tour to present the film and promote the Republicans’ cause.
c) His radio features from Spain were poignant, remarkable accounts of the war.

d)

Thanks to his propaganda campaign, Bethune motivated men to sign up for the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion, the Canadian contingent of the International Brigades that fought fascism in Spain and lost almost one quarter of its members. Canada provided the second largest number of volunteers per population, after France.

e)

Thanks to Bethune’s writings (letters and newspaper articles) and a brochure called The Crime on the Road from Málaga to Almería, current generations of Spaniards were able to recover the memories of this event. What Bethune wrote and the film Heart of Spain were the starting point of an exhibition of photographs about Bethune in Andalusia. This same exhibition will open at the McCord Museum in Montreal in October 2008.

 

BETHUNE IN CHINA (1938-1939)
“I am going to China because that is where the need is greatest.”

Dr Norman Bethune, or Pai-Chu-En, left as a legacy:

1.

His scientific approach: By insisting on perfecting professional techniques, he underscored the importance of harnessing scientific and technological skill to the enthusiasm for emancipating humanity;

2.

His sense of responsibility in pursuing the truth and the solution to problems, always with that characteristic revolutionary spirit of his; for example,
 

a)

He urged doctors to go to the wounded at the front.

b)

He devised a portable operating theatre and a “Model Hospital” to train doctors in a year and nurses in six months.

c)

Out of virtually nothing he invented what was needed to treat the wounded.

 

3.

His internationalist spirit, so embedded in the hearts of the Chinese people, is a model to be emulated. For westerners, was he the forebear of Doctors without Borders?

4.

Bethune was a rare witness to the two wars in the l930s that opposed the militarism of the extreme right and democracy.

5.

Among his many contributions was the consolidation of ties between Bethune’s birth country and China, where he died a hero.

Following his visit to China in 1972, Prime Minister Trudeau declared Norman Bethune to be “a Canadian of historic importance nationwide.” The Canadian government purchased the house where Bethune was born, in Gravenhurst, Ontario, and opened the Bethune Memorial House in 1976.

Thanks to the Bethune Memorial House, an exhibition of some 20 photographs of Bethune in China, taken by his friend and official photographer of Mao Zedong’s army, Sha Fei, will be available at La Fondation Aubin. The Fondation will lend it out to be displayed free of charge in universities and schools, health institutions, cultural centres, libraries, etc.


Sources :

Norman Bethune: Politique de la passion, lettres, créations et écrits. Édition présentée et annotée par Larry Hannant. Montréal, Lux Éditeur, 2006.

Norman Bethune: His times and his legacy / Son époque et son message. David A.E. Shephard et Andrée Lévesque, éditeurs. Ottawa : Association canadienne d’Hygiène publique, 1982.

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