Continuing with our Alumni Series, we have Norman Bethune. If you’re from Toronto, you’ve probably heard of him – there’s a school named after him – but maybe you didn’t know he graduated from the University of Toronto, had a significant impact on health care on the front lines and was a part of the Communist Party.
Henry Norman Bethune was born in Gravenhurst, Ontario in 1890, and early in his life, he knew he wanted to be a surgeon and enrolled in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine. However, he soon stopped his studies to be a labourer-teacher with Frontier College, teaching mining workers English. With the start of the First World War in 1911, he joined the N0.2 Field Ambulance Medical Corps in France as a medical aid worker where he was wounded and later returned to Canada to finish his studies. He graduated in 1916 and still wanted to help with the war efforts by serving as a lieutenant-surgeon in the Royal Navy.
He moved around a lot; he worked at the Hospital for Sick Children in London, England, then came back to Canada, and later moved to Scotland to train more, becoming a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons.
In 1926, after working closely with the sick, he contracted tuberculosis and stayed at the New York sanitarium. He became aware of how there were no treatment options for tuberculosis patients and devoted the next part of his life to reworking medical instruments – some of which are still used presently. He also helped change thoracic surgery techniques and wrote some books.
He later became more concerned with the poor and their lack of health care. After coming into contact with Communism in the Soviet Union, he was impressed with their socialist approach to health care and tried to bring it to Canada. He joined the Communist Party in 1935.
With the start of yet another war, the Spanish Civil War, he made significant contributions to helping save victims, who most often would die of loss of blood. He set up a mobile blood transfusion bank that was able to give 100 blood transfusions per day. At the time, this was highly innovative.
Bethune later became involved with another war, the Sino-Japanese War. He went to China to help with the medical work and was very committed since he felt personally involved in the war against Japanese fascism. During his stay in China, he was known as a great surgeon and teacher. However, in October of 1939, while operating on a soldier, he cut his finger and contracted septicaemia (blood poisoning) and died on November 12, 1939.
His efforts in health care were recognized by many, including Mao Zedong, the chairman of China at the time, who wrote "In Memory of Norman Bethune” to commemorate his dedication to the Chinese people. Here in Canada, there are statues of him in Montreal and Gravenhurst, and for Torontonians, Dr. Norman Bethune Collegiate Institute, a high school in Scarborough, Ontario, was named after him.
Photo source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Bethune
Source: Library and Archives Canada http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/physicians/index-e.html