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Portrait of Norman Bethune
taken in Madrid, Spain, 1937 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-114788)
The Scalpel, the Sword - the story of Dr. Norman Bethune

a book written by Ted Allan and Sydney Gordon

Stamp issued in honour of Dr. Bethune,1975












By Bala Menon

"That morning, as the men were trooping out of the village for the day's labor in the fields, they saw Tung standing in the doorway of Yu's house. They stopped at the courtyard wall and inquired after Pai Chu En."

"He is dead", Tung said. The day - November 13, 1939, twenty minutes after 5.00am. That was when Dr. Norman Bethune died, as the great revolution raged in the Chinese countryside. Medically his death was certified "death by gangrene". But as Madame Sun Yat Sen said "he fell in the fight against fascism and reaction."

A Canadian Hero

Bethune is no stranger to millions throughout the world who fight for the same ideal for which the doctor sacrificed his life. Bethune became a hero because he could vanquish his weaknesses. "He turned his back on his life as a sybarite, a roisterer, a darling of women and became the front-line doctor, the guerilla, the revolutionary". Today, wherever the cause of the world's peoples has triumphed, he is honoured. Wherever it is still has to be won, he is a banner, a call to arms.

In this book, remarkable for its lyrical style, the authors recreate the throb of all the now historic battles fought in Spain and China - battles, which Bethune fought. The book vividly describes the emotions of a man who though struck down by tuberculosis became one of the most prominent thoracic surgeons in North America. He invented several pieces of surgical equipment that formed the basis of the advanced equipment we see today.

He was, however, stricken with guilt when he saw both state and society train guns on ordinary people. During the Great Depression, he urged the Canadian government to provide free health services to the people. His request was rejected. He traveled to the Soviet Union in 1935, and later organized the Montreal Group for the Security of the People's Health, the first body in Canada to campaign for universal and free medical care. The same year he joined the Communist Party..

The Bethune Museum in Gravenhurst in picturesque Muskoka.

Born in Gravenhurst in Northern Ontario, Bethune also served in the First World War as a stretcher-bearer and saw at first hand the horrors of war. He went to Spain and worked out of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War and developed a system of battlefield blood transfusions which saved many lives.

It was during the Spanish war, when Bethune embarked on a lecture tour of Northern America, after returning from the Malaga battlefield, that he came out with an announcement he was a communist in response to a heckler's question.

Bethune knew that for a man of his social position and whose forefathers for generation have been preachers he could be stigmatized. Perhaps he knew that he had already left his social status behind when he went to tend the "shattered Spanish Mountain tops" declassified, with a high awareness of human problems and passionate concern about human suffering.

Poet, inventor, artist

Later in China, he marched with the Chinese Red Army against the Japanese forces, and developed his blood transfusion system further. He invented a mobile unit that helped save at least 500 lives a day and continued doing operations under terrible conditions.

He remained a poet and an artist. Bethune had written in his diary about the true artist - "he makes uneasy the static, the set and the still. In a world afraid of change, he preaches revolution, the principle of life. He is an agitator, a disturber of the peace, quick, impatient, positive, restless and disquieting. He is the creative spirit working in the soul of man."

After Bethune's death, Mao Tse Tung told his countrymen: "we mourn much more than the passing of a man". And at Yenan the troops of the 8th Red Army stood row upon row, filling the valley between the honeycombed hills while Martial Chu Teh the commander - in -chief of the communist armies spoke to them of the man who died for them.

Mausoleum of Martyrs

It was, however, nine years later that General Neieh entered the Shansi Province where Bethune died to wipe out the desecration done by the Japanese on his grave. Bethune's comrades had by then become the rulers of China. His remains were taken to the Mausoleum of Martyrs in the city of Shih Cha Chuang, south east of Peking. A statue, a pavilion and a museum mark the site. Even today one of most widely read articles in China is Mao Tsetung's In Memory of Dr. Norman Bethune.

Just next to Bethune's grave is the grave of his colleague an Indian doctor Dr. Dwaraknath Kotnis who also died in the attempt to penetrate Chincha-Chi in the hope of taking over Bethune's work. (Dwarkanath Shantaram Kotnis (born October 10, 1910 in Solapur District, Southern Maharashtra, India – died December 9, 1942, in China), was one of five Indian physicians dispatched to China to provide medical assistance during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1938. Along with Dr. Bethune, he continues to be revered by the Chinese people. In April 2005 both their graves were covered under a mountain of flowers by the Chinese people during the Qingming Festival, a day used by the Chinese to commemorate their ancestors.)

And as the epilogue of the book says "in the memory of Bethune's life, the great are reminded of the people from whom they draw their strength, and the people are reminded of the road that anyone can travel to greatness."

In 1973, the Canadian Government took over his home in Gravenhurst and converted it into a well-visited museum. A commemorative stamp series has also been issued. Norman Bethune's spirit was at last back home - with many of his welfare ideals now in place in a modern, caring and compassionate Canada.

© 2009, Bala Menon

This article was first published in the training newspaper Charisma of the
Times of India Group in Bombay, India.

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