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A Hero on Three Continents

This story was initially published in 2002

On January 8, 1938, Dr. Norman Bethune boarded the SS Empress of Asia in Vancouver, B.C., to travel to war-torn China. Already known in Canada and Spain as a medical innovator and humanitarian, Bethune would soon become a hero on three continents.

Canadian Blood Transfusion Unit during the Spanish Civil War; Dr. Norman Bethune is on the right

Canadian Blood Transfusion Unit
during the Spanish Civil War;
Dr. Norman Bethune is on the right

© Library and Archives Canada / PA-117423

Bethune earned his medical degree in 1916, but it was not until the late 1920s that he began to find his true calling. After a serious bout of tuberculosis, he dedicated himself to helping other victims of the disease, especially the poor who often could not afford proper treatment. During the Great Depression, while working in Montréal and Cartierville, Quebec, Bethune pioneered techniques for treating tuberculosis. He also established a free medical clinic for the poor and attempted to gain support for public health care in Canada.

Bethune found a new cause in 1936, when a civil war broke out in Spain between Nationalist and Republican forces. The Nationalists were supported by Italian and German Fascists, while the Republicans were aided by Communists from more than 60 countries. Bethune, a member of the Canadian Communist Party and a fervent anti-Fascist, quit his job and travelled to Spain to join the Republicans. There, he organized the very first mobile blood transfusion service, which brought blood directly to soldiers along the 1000 km front. Bethune's simple but brilliant innovation saved the lives of many who would have otherwise died before reaching a hospital. In some areas, the survival rate of soldiers increased by 75 percent!

Painting of Dr. Norman Bethune, a gift of the Chinese government

Painting of Dr. Norman Bethune,
a gift of the Chinese government

© Bethune Memorial House

The following year, when militarist Japan invaded China, Bethune was determined to help the Chinese Communists. He travelled a grueling 1300 km, mostly by mule, finally reaching the front lines in northeastern China. Bethune was shocked to find that there were only a few qualified doctors to treat more than 25 000 wounded. He met the challenge by establishing model hospitals to train doctors and nurses. He also set up mobile medical facilities and performed numerous surgeries, once operating on 115 patients during 69 straight hours! Bethune's death on November 12, 1939, from blood poisoning, was mourned across China, where he is revered to this day. His status as a hero there helped build Canada-China relations during the Cold War.

In 1972, Dr. Norman Bethune was designated a National Historic Person. His birthplace in Gravenhurst, Ontario, Bethune Memorial House National Historic Site of Canada, commemorates his medical and humanitarian achievements in Canada, Spain and China.

For more information on Dr. Norman Bethune, please visit the Bethune Memorial House National Historic Site Web site.

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