Welcome to the Norman Bethune tribute site
Home > His Many Facets > The Innovative Healer
His many facets

The Innovative Healer

"Modern medicine has less need
of great doctors and famous surgeons
than of clear-thinking, far-sighted statesmen."

— Norman Bethune

Henry Norman Bethune was virtually born to a life in medicine. While still a young child, he decided to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, Norman Bethune Sr., who was a prestigious doctor in nineteenth-century Toronto, serving as the dean of medicine at Trinity College as well as a professor at the Toronto School of Medicine and Victoria University. The younger Bethune asked people to forget his first name Henry and start calling him Norman, after his much admired forebear. He went on to study medicine in Toronto, and then to perfect his skills in Britain, France and Austria.

At the age of thirty-six, Bethune was afflicted with tuberculosis. While confined to a sanatorium and forced to endure long months of rest, he was moved to reflect deeply on the human condition. He also remained very passionate about the practical aspects of his work, and insisted that his doctors try a new and daring procedure called artificial pneumothorax. They intentionally collapsed the tubercular lung, allowing it time to rest and heal itself, and Bethune made a full recovery from the disease in just six weeks.
Dr. Norman Bethune, Dr. Arthur Vineberg and Dr. P. Perron assisting Dr. Edward Archibald in an operation at the Royal Victoria HospitalCredit: National Film Board of Canada. Photothéque / Library and Archives Canada / PA-160591

For the next decade, he practised thoracic surgery in Montréal -- first as an assistant to Dr. Edward Archibald, a pioneer of thoracic surgery in Canada, at the Royal Victoria Hospital, and then as head of head of the Department of Thoracic Surgery at the Sacré Coeur Hospital in Cartierville, ten miles north of Montréal. He acquired an international reputation as an innovative surgeon and dedicated researcher. He published many articles in medical journals to introduce new surgical techniques and, believing that contemporary surgical instruments were poorly designed, he invented or modified more than a dozen new surgical tools. His most famous instrument was the Bethune Rib Shears, which still remains in use today.

During the economic depression of the 1930s, Bethune became more and more impatient with the socio-economic aspects of disease. Every day he witnessed the effects of poverty on people's health, and he became convinced that medicine must address the economic and social causes of disease as well as its physical symptoms. In 1935, he opened a free clinic where he treated the unemployed and their families. He became an ardent defender of universal health care, at a time when the idea of establishing a socialized medical system was quite anti-conformist. Bethune advocated strenuously for the establishment of such a system, but found his beliefs rejected as too radical. In 1935, he travelled to the Soviet Union to study their health care system. After returning home, he became a member of the Communist Party of Canada.

Canadian Blood Transfusion Unit which operated during the Spanish Civil War. Dr. Norman Bethune is at the rightCredit: Library and Archives Canada / PA-117423

In 1936, Norman Bethune joined the anti-fascist Republican Army in the Spanish Civil War. Recognizing the importance of rapid response to battlefield injuries, he set up a blood bank near the front, and designed a mobile blood-transfusion unit in a van with refrigerators and other equipment to preserve donated blood and perform transfusions. The mobile unit was the most important innovation in military medicine during the Spanish Civil War. Its use would be widely adopted again during the Second World War.

Later, in China, Norman Bethune drew upon this experience to develop a mobile operating theatre, carried by two mules, which could pass through difficult terrain or escape enemy fire when necessary. As one of the few qualified doctors in a remote area, he began to train medical staff at a fast rate. He wrote and distributed training manuals, and used surgical operations in the field to teach doctors and nurses on the spot. His goal was to completely train doctors in a single year, nurses in six months.

Dr. Norman Bethune preforming a blood transfusion during the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1938, SpainCredit: Geza Karpathi / Library and Archives Canada / e007151988

Outraged by poverty and injustice, Norman Bethune dedicated his energy, determination and medical skills to serving the people under his care, always looking for simple and effective solutions that would ease their suffering.