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His many facets

The Adventurer

"With me, you may be unhappy,
but you will never be bored."

— Promise made by Norman Bethune
to his fiancée Frances on their wedding day

Norman Bethune had an insatiable thirst for challenges. Once, as a young child, he slipped away from his mother and purposely lost himself in Toronto for several hours, just for the fun of it. As an adult, he threw himself into the English Channel during a storm. Such daring only increased as his life progressed. He became a courageous humanitarian, determined to brave any adventure if it would help to relieve human suffering and defend the ideals of social justice.

Norman Bethune's return from Russia, ca 1935Credit: Library and Archives Canada/PA-160628

He took part in the First World War, not once but twice. He first served as a stretcher bearer in Belgium. Wounded in the leg by shrapnel, he spent three months in hospital, then returned home to complete his bachelor's degree in Medicine. Stopped on the street by a young woman who accused him of shirking his war duty, he returned to the war, this time as an assistant surgeon aboard the HMS Pegasus, a British aircraft carrier patrolling the North Sea. He remained in the army until early 1919, when he was finally demobilized.

After a few trips to Europe and America and a long stay in Montréal, Norman Bethune fell under the influence of Hazen Sise and Stanley Ryerson, two Montréal internationalists who made him more aware of the struggles being waged to safeguard democratic values around the world. He now wanted to devote himself to the role of humanitarian doctor. Driven by a great thirst for social justice, he channelled his adventurous spirit into a deep commitment to the humanitarian causes dictated by his political beliefs.

In 1936, he left for Spain, where civil war was erupting, and proceeded directly to the front. On many occasions, he risked his life to give blood to wounded soldiers on the battlefield. En route to Malaga, he encountered thousands of exhausted people fleeing the besieged city. For four days and nights, he remained with them to provide care and support, while his colleague, the Montréal architect Hazen Sise, carried dozens of refugees away by truck.

Dr. Norman Bethune (extreme right) with Dr. Richard Brown and soldiers of the Eighth Route Army, Northern China, 1938Credit: Library and Archives Canada / PA-116874

Back in Canada, the battle-weary doctor crossed the country on a speaking tour, hoping to raise money and volunteers for the anti-fascist battle raging in Spain. But few months later, he left the country again, this time for China. The Japanese invasion had intensified into the Second Sino-Japanese War, and Bethune, believing that Spain and China were part of the same struggle against fascism, decided that his skills were most needed across the Pacific.

After arriving in China, he was escorted to Communist headquarters at Yan'an. The night he arrived, he was invited by Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, to stay and supervise the Eighth Route Army Border Hospital. But after spending a few weeks at the hospital, Bethune decided he would be more effective at the front, and travelled 300 km to the north, to the mountain ranges where the fighting was the fiercest. In the months that followed, he travelled more than 4,500 km, including 600 km on foot through steep mountain passes where mules could not go, to operate on wounded soldiers and improve sanitary conditions.