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Jul-17-2012 00:52printcomments

The Resurrection of Norman Bethune

Of patriots, physicians and political poltroons...

Norman Bethune
A devout Communist, Comrade Norman Bethune is better remembered in China than his native Canada.

(SASKATCHEWAN) - Norman Bethune was born into a Scottish-Canadian family in the small Ontario town of Gravenhurst, of forebears who were largely medical practioners and/or Presbyterians. He attended the University of Toronto, eventually earning a degree in medicine, practised medicine in Montreal, and was apparently a highly innovative physician, since his design of the Bethune Shears for chopping open the rib cage is still used today, 75 years later. That's the good stuff, viewed from a contemporary Conservative – or conservative – point of view.

However, interspersed with that classic Canadiana, he (1) interrupted his studies to be a stretcher-bearer – shrapnel-wounded - in the War to end all wars, (2) joined the Communist Party of Canada in 1935, (3) took part in the Spanish Civil War in 1936, along with other good-guy Communists like Ernest Hemingway and the English poets of the time, where he (4) devised a revolutionary system for supplying blood transfusion close to the front, thereby saving many lives, (5) in 1938 he joined Mao-Zedong's (or whatever the current spelling is) Army contra both the Japanese invaders and the Chiang Kai-shek capitalists. As a result, (6) he became a Chinese super-hero, patron saint and revolutionary icon.

He is perhaps the greatest Canadian example of a prophet who (because he was largely ignored back home) was not without honor, save in his own country. He died, almost unnecessarily, from an accidental scalpel cut on his finger during battlefield surgery, and the ensuing blood poison, taking place in less than clinical conditions. To say that he was buried in China with full military honors would be a gross understatement. He is enshrined

in that country with all the national pomp, ceremony and prestige normally reserved for warlords, emperors and ancient dynasty members.

Bethune is buried in the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery in Hebei Province, ensconced in a tomb and memorial hall. He is a household word to millions of grade schoolers – in Guandong Province, if not Owen Sound.

Dr. Norman Bethune was obviously, by any criterion, a devoted physician, a humanitarian figure who not only fought the good fight but committed himself to great causes all his life.

He was also, socially and morally, a bit of a nutcase. He married what has been described as an extremely beautiful Scottish woman whom, when he later contracted tuberculosis and believed himself to be at death's door, he persuaded to divorce him and return to Scotland. He thereupon recovered and begged her to remarry him, which she hesitatingly did. The marriage broke up two or three years later.

Almost unknown in his own country, at least while he was alive, Bethune was immortalized by none other than Chairman Mao, who had been a lowly field commander when Bethune served in his army. In 1939, Mao published an article “In Memory of Norman Bethune,” which devoted considerable detail to Bethune's final months in China. It became mandatory reading for every Chinese school child, as t remains today.

Mao's essay read in part:

"Comrade Bethune’s spirit, his utter devotion to others without any thought of self, was shown in his great sense of responsibility in his work and his great warm-heartedness towards all comrades and the people ... We must all learn the spirit of absolute selflessness from him. With this spirit everyone can be very useful to the people. A man’s ability may be great or small, but if he has this spirit, he is already noble-minded and pure, a man of moral integrity and above vulgar interests.,”

Speaking of vulgar interests, just recently the Stephen Harper government in Canada, intent on improving diplomatic – and particularly economic – relations with the mega-nation rapidly overtaking North America as the most powerful world economy, realized that they had been missing a bet with the forgotten medic from Gravenhurst.

Granted, more recently, Bethune had been granted a smidgin of recognition first under the reign of Pierre Trudeau, whose government purchased the manse in which Bethune was born and converted it into a tourist attraction, following Trudeau's visit to China, principally of interest to touristing Chinese. Then in 2000, the Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson, conveniently of Chinese extraction herself, unveiled a bronze statue of Bethune. It stands in front of the Opera House on the town's main drag. For an assistant queen to dedicate a statue in front of the Gravenhurst Opera House speaks volume for Bethune's recognition in Canada.

In addition, Bethune has been remembered, Canadian style, in film and literature. Notably, Donald Sutherland, Canada's favorite artistic export, starred in the 1974 television opus “Witness to Yesterday,” sponsored by Shell Canada. Sutherland went on to figure in two biographical films on the Canadian medical hero, both logically entitled “Bethune,” and one of which co-starred Helen Mirren, as the on-again, off-again Mrs. Bethune.

“Governments,” proclaimed one Toronto writer who prefers to remain anonymous, “have never been averse to using their heroes for political purposes, manipulating the myth to suit present goals. But Treasury Board President Tony Clement is going to need a chiropractor to deal with the contortions required to enlist legendary Canadian doctor and avowed communist Norman Bethune in the Conservative government's drive for closer trade ties with China.”

Clement had made an appearance recently to open a new $2.5-million interpretive center at Bethune's birthplace. Gravenhurst just happens to be Clement's home constituency.

While 15,000 Chinese tourists and Chinese Canadians annually visit Bethune's birthplace, those numbers could soar now that Canada recently revised approved-destination status for Chinese tour groups.

"I think we as Conservatives,” said Tony Clement, perhaps echoing the Prime Minister's initiative, “can be comfortable that there's a message here broader than just his Communism, that goes to his humanism and entrepreneurship."

Entrepreneurship? Yeah, right. Marxist or not, in the Thirties Norman Bethune obviously was just a free-enterpriser at heart, with his advanced field equipment and his rib-crunching surgical invention. A neo-conservative under the skin. Or at least under the ribs.

“Human characters can be reinvented for a lot of purposes," said Paul Evans, director of the University of British Columbia's Institute of Asian Research.

I agree. As for the flack in the PMO that came up with the resurrection of Dr. Norman Bethune, I think he deserves The Order of Canada with oak leaf clusters.


Bill Annett grew up a writing brat; his father, Ross Annett, at a time when Scott Fitzgerald and P.G. Wodehouse were regular contributors, wrote the longest series of short stories in the Saturday Evening Post's history, with the sole exception of the unsinkable Tugboat Annie.

At 18, Bill's first short story was included in the anthology “Canadian Short Stories.” Alarmed, his father enrolled Bill in law school in Manitoba to ensure his going straight. For a time, it worked, although Bill did an arabesque into an English major, followed, logically, by corporation finance, investment banking and business administration at NYU and the Wharton School. He added G.I. education in the Army's CID at Fort Dix, New Jersey during the Korean altercation.

He also contributed to The American Banker and Venture in New York, INC. in Boston, the International Mining Journal in London, Hong Kong Business, Financial Times and Financial Post in Toronto.

Bill has written six books, including a page-turner on mutual funds, a send-up on the securities industry, three corporate histories and a novel, the latter no doubt inspired by his current occupation in Daytona Beach as a law-abiding beach comber.

You can write to Bill Annett at this address: bilko23@gmail.com

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