Dr. Norman Bethune: Life on the Front Line

By Alex Walker

Norman Bethune standing next to his Canadian Blood Transfusion Unit during the Spanish Civil War.
Norman Bethune standing next to his Canadian Blood Transfusion Unit during the Spanish Civil War. Image Credits: Library and Archives Canada / PA-117423

Thackray Museum of Medicine is host to a large collection of medical items and instruments, many of which bear the names of their inventors. In this way, they carry the legacy of their creators, decades and even centuries after their passing. One such example of these instruments is the Bethune Rib Shears. Developed by Norman Bethune (1890-1939), the rib shears look similar to a pair of pliers, with an extended handle and stubby blades at its end. The Bethune Rib Shears have proven to be highly useful in surgical operations, allowing access to internal organs, and it continues to be used today, nearly one hundred years later.

Bethune Rib Shears
Bethune Rib Shears (116.058)

As I began my research of this particular instrument, I stumbled across the incredible life that its creator had lived, one that took him across the world. A life that I believe outshines his many medical inventions, leaving him with a legacy in which he is the subject of praise, admiration and utmost respect from millions of people.

While Norman Bethune is typically remembered for his many creations and improvements upon surgical instruments in the West, his legacy in other nations and parts of the world is largely a result of his political and ideological backgrounds and exploits. Having been born into a prominent Canadian family, which could trace its history back to the Beaton medical kindred (Clann Meic-bethad), a network of physicians who practised traditional Gaelic medicine in Scotland during the Middle Ages to the 19th century, Bethune followed in the footsteps of his grandfather in becoming a doctor.

He first began studying physiology and biochemistry at the University of Toronto, but made the arduous decision to suspend his studies in 1914 to serve in the Great War. Bethune was accepted into the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps and operated as a stretcher-bearer in both France and Belgium. He later suffered an injury at the Second Battle of Ypres, which forced him to return to Canada. This, however, was a blessing in disguise, as he was able to continue his studies, eventually receiving his doctorate in 1916.

Bethune didn’t sit still after the war, and during the 1920s his life only got more eventful: working a variety of jobs, travelling across Europe, and encountering his future wife, as well as contracting tuberculosis. Incredibly, he insisted on being treated with an experimental new method, one that required voluntarily collapsing his own lung! Ultimately, the radical treatment proved itself to be highly effective, with Bethune making a full recovery in a mere six weeks.

Black and White photo of Norman Bethune
Dr. Norman Bethune. Image credits: Library and Archives Canada / PA-160718

While working as a doctor at the height of the Great Depression, Bethune was distraught at seeing the immense levels of poverty in the city of Montreal. He would demonstrate his selfless and charitable nature when he opened a clinic specifically to aid the unemployed and those in need, whom he would treat free of charge. It was during this time that Bethune became a major proponent for a system of socialised medicine, an idea that would later be implemented in the UK in the form of the NHS. He campaigned fiercely for medical reform in Canada, but was unable to make a change. Bethune needed to prove his government and his medical peers wrong, and in order to do this he believed that he needed to understand how socialised medicine would work in practice. Such an idea took him to the Soviet Union, which he visited in 1935, in order to see socialised medicine in action. His return to Canada the following year brought not only his vision for the future of medicine, but also his new found political fervour in the form of Communism, with Bethune becoming a member of the Communist Party of Canada.

In 1936, Bethune once again leapt into action, travelling to Spain at the outset of the Spanish Civil War in order to aid the Republican forces against coalition of Nationalist forces led by Franciso Franco. The ingenuity of Bethune was proven again, as he developed a mobile blood transfusion service that was able to transport the donated blood of civilians to wounded soldiers on the front lines, expanding previous work by Frederic Duran I Jordà.

For the third time in his life, Bethune would once again propel himself to aid those affected by war, this time providing medical care to the Chinese during the Japanese invasion of the late 1930s. Arriving in the Shanbei region of China in early 1938, Bethune would join the forces of the Chinese Communists under the highly influential Mao Zedong, who would later transform China into a world power. Bethune would perform emergency surgeries very close to the front line, often coming under fire from Japanese forces in the midst of an operation. Crucial training was also provided to Chinese medical staff by Bethune, helping to improve the quality of care in China. Unfortunately, Bethune would receive an injury during one of his many surgeries, with the wound becoming infected and leading to sepsis. Unable to recover from this grave illness, Norman Bethune passed away on 12th November 1939.

A blurred black and white photo of four people performing surgery.
Dr. Norman Bethune performing surgery in Hopei, China, 1939. Image credits: Library and Archives Canada / PA-114795

The incredible life of Norman Bethune left a strong impression on the countless people that he provided aid to. He is remembered in memorials throughout Canada, China, and Spain for his altruistic contribution to humanitarian causes. However, it is his enduring legacy among the Chinese that particularly amazes me. Mao Zedong himself was distraught at hearing the news of Bethune’s death, and personally eulogised him, with this eulogy being published throughout China as well as globally. Bethune is also one of a select few Westerners to be commemorated in China through statues, with dozens being erected in his honour. Even to this day, the highest medical honour in China is named the Bethune Medal, being awarded biannually to the country’s top medical practitioners.

Through my research into a single surgical tool, I uncovered the story of an extraordinary individual. A man who had put his life at constant risk in order to assist as many as he could; who ventured fearlessly into war zones to aid to those on the brink of death; who passionately campaigned for the universal right to receive medical care; and who will be remembered for his unwavering commitment to his principles. Reflecting on the life of Norman Bethune, I find that his legacy resonates through his own words most profoundly:

“Medicine, as we are practising it, is a luxury trade. We are selling bread at the price of jewels… Let us take the profit, the private economic profit, out of medicine, and purify our profession of rapacious individualism… Let us say to the people not ‘How much have you got?’ but ‘How best can we serve you?”

– Norman Bethune.

A statue of Dr. Norman Bethune
A statue of Norman Bethune in front of the Jilin University Medical School of Bethune. Image credits: © 董辰兴 / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0

Alex Walker is part of a team of MA students working on a placement project with Thackray Museum of Medicine to discover the hidden histories of objects within the museum’s collections. He is studying at the University of Leeds for an MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies.