THE ONLY CANADIAN THE CHINESE EVER HEARD OF
NORMAN BETHUNE was an inspired medical crusader to some of his Montreal colleagues and a simple exhibitionist to others. To the Red Chinese he is one of only five national heroes
THE AUTHORITIES AT ROYAL VICTORIA HOSPITAL were startled recently when the Peking Opera Company, playing lor the first time in Montreal. turned up and announced they were going to give a concert.
"Wasn't this the old hospital of the Canadian doctor, Norman Bethune?” they asked. They wanted to sing for the patients, in tribute to a man who, in their country, has become a national hero.
When they had finished they asked to see Dr. Bethune's statue and his portrait. They couldn't believe it when they were told the hospital had neither.
Behind the bamboo curtain, Bethune is the only Canadian the Chinese have ever heard of. Schools and hospitals are named after him. Children are taught about him at school. His statue stands outside the International Peace Hospital.
When Professor Ronald Christie, physicianin-chief of Royal Victoria Hospital, and Dr. Lloyd Stevenson, dean of medicine at McGill, visited Peking last summer they were shown the photograph gallery at the Military Museum. Four times bigger than any other picture was that of Norman Bethune. Professor Christie
posted a letter in Peking to an old colleague of Bethune in Montreal, Dr. Sandy McIntosh. Both stamps were pictures of Bethune.
In Canada. Bethune is not a hero. But he is a legend. They were talking about him in the Thirties and they're still talking about him — a tough unpredictable man who bragged about his mistresses but not about his resourcefulness on the battlefield, who came close to death's
door with TB but went to war four times, who loved to grandstand for the nurses and internes at Royal Victoria Hospital but drove himself to death in the distant hills of China, operating where there was no one to watch him but the sick and wounded and no word from an outside world to tell him he was not fighting a lost cause.
Bethune was a surgeon, although almost everyone who knew' him here thought he should have been something else—an actor, an inventor, a soldier. He tried them all. His exploits are still conversation at the dinner tables he used to shock. He goes on turning up in books, factual as well as fictional. People w'ho knew him are just as mystified by what they knew as a later generation asking about him.
Medical students at McGill asked the dean to give them a lecture about Bethune after he got back from China. Dean Stevenson had never met Bethune. Looking him up he found what everyone finds who reads his story. "It must have been fun to have been here when he was.” he says. "I wonder if I would have liked him. He probably deserves a memorial if only as one of the few real nonconformist Canadians. We don't produce many."
Norman Bethune's nonconforming seems to have started when his life was three quarters over. He died when he was forty-nine. It was the dozen years before that that made him into a legend.
He was born in Gravenhurst. Ontario, in 1890, the son of a Presbyterian minister. He was taking medicine at the University of Toronto w'hen World War 1 broke out. He joined up, the tenth man in Toronto to enlist, and w'cnt to France with the 1st Canadian Field Ambulance. He w'as wounded at Ypres and returned to finish his course. Then, as the war was still on, he re-entered as lieutenant-surgeon with the British Navy.
Demobilized in England, he interned at the Hospital for Sick Children and Fever Hospital. He plunged into London life, quickly becoming a dashing man about town and a familiar figure at Soho theatre parties. Of medium height, well set up, w'ith piercing blue-green eyes, he had a pugnacious sort of charm that people remembered w'hether they liked him or not. He covered London expenses by picking up obscure art treasures in France and Spain and selling them at a profit in England.
In Edinburgh, where he took his FRCS, he met his wife Frances Campbell Penney. She was a lovely, reserved Scottish girl. Bethune loved her all his life but their marriage turned out to be as stormy as his own life.
In 1924 he returned to America and set up practice in Detroit. He contracted tuberculosis and w'as sent to the sanatorium at Saranac Lake, New York. The impatient, disappointed doctor gave bed rest no fair trial. The disease worsened and he was transferred to The Lea bungalow where three others were waiting to die.
Bethune led most of the parties at The Lea and also scrawled a wild mural around the walls, A TB‘s Progress, which is now at the University of Michigan. Ann Arbor. One day he w'as reading Dr. John Alexander’s The Surgery of Pulmonary Tuberculosis and what he read changed his life. The book outlined the comparatively new treatment of artificial pneumothorax, by which air is inserted into the chest and the infected lung collapsed. Bethune demanded the treatment for himself. Within two months the compression therapy had worked and he was free. He left, determined to save other lives as his had been saved.
It is a medical fact that a TB victim undergoes a period of euphoria after emerging from the shadows. As one Montreal doctor said. Bethune sounds as though he never got over the euphoria. He was on top of the world when he went to work at the New' York state TB hospital and his mood was high and gay when he came to Montreal two years later as research fellow under Dr. Edward Archibald at Royal Victoria Hospital.
It was too gay for the w'ork he had undertaken. Chest surgery was a serious and delicate business and surgeons performing it were expected to lead sober lives. Bethune was in a hurry. He screamed at the nurses if they couldn't keep up with him. He rushed his operations. often doing in fifteen minutes what it w'ould take another man two hours to finish. He rebelled at many of the standard instruments and invented his own. Medical equipment today includes Bethune Rib Shears, the Bethune Pneumothorax Machine and two or three others. He used to turn up in outrageous clothes although he got a following from at least one woman doctor who used to wear shirts identical to his until he chased her around the dining-room table with a carving knife and she fled terrified.
In his off hours, CONTINUED ON PAGE 62
continued from page 19
“He’d wear purple pants and a gray jacket, or the
other way round. He’d have made a great beatnik’’
Bethune did research at McGill’s experimental lab. "Oh yes, I remember Norman Bethune.” says T. W. Ritchie, a technician at the lab. "A big heavy chap with reddish fair hair, going gray then. They’re all the same, these research scholars, a bit dogmatic if you let them get away with it. He was even more so. If he wanted to do something he’d kick away the obstacles. But he worked, my God he worked.
"I remember the day he operated on a dog and removed its lung. We had the dog around here for a long time, used to call it One Lung. Bethune designed a pneumothorax machine here,” and Ritchie took a pencil and drew from memory. "He made a suction pump from two glass cylinders— like that, with a tube here and a needle at the end. It was made here at McGill.
"He was a hell of a nice chap, but a peculiar chap. Used to come in here with purple pants and a gray jacket or else the other way around. He was the first man I ever saw wearing suede shoes. If he were here today I’d say he would have made a beautiful beatnik.”
But it was beatnik Bethune who got Dean Stevenson and Prof. Christie into China last year. They took with them one of Bethune’s original pneumothorax machines and everywhere they showed it. it became their passport. They were given a royal escort from the Chinese border right into Peking. There they left the Bethune trophy in a room full of Bcthune’s possessions.
Medical men who knew Bethune in Montreal have mixed feelings about him. They don’t deny his gifts as a medical man nor his popularity with patients. They admire his inventive skill. Many felt his fetish for speed was showing off. Others say his knowledge of medicine was not as profound as it should have been. At one point Bethune must have felt the same thing. He had completed the manuscript for a monograph on chest disease and was going over it in front of the fire with a colleague one evening. Much of what he had written came under criticism and he turned to his friend. “What you really mean is this seems to be a bad book,” he said, and threw the pages into the fire. He had made no copy, and that was that.
Bethune got a divorce when he found he had TB. In Montreal he wrote to Scotland and asked Frances to come back. They were remarried in 1929 but this time the marriage only lasted a year. They were divorced and Frances married again.
Adrift. Bethune would finish operating at three in the morning, drive his little $150 roadster out of the hospital grounds and take off for the country. Extravagant and generous, he became famous for the parties at his Beaver Hall apartment. Montreal painter Marian Scott remembers one of them. "Norman suddenly rushed in and said. ‘Oh, 1 need new wallpaper in the bathroom.’ We all put lipstick on our mouths, hands and feet and printed a figured wallpaper for him.” Mrs. Scott occasionally went sketching with Bethune. “He was very serious about it and got intensely involved,” she says. At the Scott’s house there is a self-portrait of Bethune. a striking head in oils.
His interest in art led him to help found a children’s art class. He gave up his apartment on Saturday mornings and youngsters from the east end of the city came to paint with Montreal artist Fritz Brandtner. Bethune loved to see them. He had no children of his own.
Meanwhile, when he was not dashing off to ski in his shirtsleeves, he was getting himself involved with the social-political
issues of the day. These were depression days and it was the slums of Montreal that many of Bethune’s TB patients came from and returned to. Talk of communism was fashionable in those days, socialized medicine less so. In 1935 Bethune went to a medical congress in Russia. His colleagues were Sir Frederick Banting. Dr. John S. L. Browne, and Dr. Hans Selye. Unlike the others, Bethune told the Montreal MedicoChirurgical Society on his return, he did not attend the meetings but “wandered about unhindered in the streets, looking into windows, making the rounds of the picture galleries anti markets and shops, looking at the Russians and trying to find out what they were doing about eradicating one of the most easily eradicable of all
contagious diseases, namely, tuberculosis.” He did not tell the meeting what the Russians were doing, but later that year he joined the Montreal Group for the Security of the People's Health.
There was other talk in Montreal in those days. Fascist troops had invaded Spain. Their backing seemed to come from sinister forces in Germany and Italy. On the other side of the world Japan was threatening China.
One day Norman Bethune arrived at Montreal's Sacré Cœur Hospital, where he was then working, and said to Dr. Georges Deshaies: “I'm going to Spain.” Dr. Deshaies remembers very well what he replied: "You're going to fight fascism and you shotdd fight TB.” Bethune said. “Yes that’s what I’m going to do and you are going to fight TB.”
Soon after that Sandy McIntosh told the lab at McGill. “Bethune’s gone to Spain.” No one was very surprised, but they did wonder why. “Bethune’s no communist,” they all said. They had turned down his invitation to form a team to go to Spain. He went alone.
In L-ondon he got unexpected support. A mutual friend rang up the Montreal
architect. Hazen Sise, who was then living in Chelsea and starting up practice in London. The young Montrealer met Bethune and. attracted by his enthusiasm, decided to go with him.
The Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy had given funds for a medical unit. Landing at Madrid. Bethune got hold of a van and headed for the front. What he found were wounded men. badly in need of all kinds of medical care but more than anything else blood transfusions. These were the days before plasma. Sise points out: "Bethune knew very little about blood transfusion. Furthermore he was dealing with people whose language he did not know.” Undaunted, Bethune exhorted the Spaniards to give blood and they did. He moved refrigeration and transfusion units into the headquarters he was assigned in Madrid and with the help of two Spanish doctors began sending blood out to a front covering more than 400 miles. Far from Madrid they were storing the precious bottles in mountain streams to keep them cool.
Franco moved his attack around to the south and Bethune decided the important thing was to get blood directly to the scene of the fighting. Sise drove and they headed for the coast. At Valencia they were told they should wait. They continued to Almería and there word came that the next town. Málaga, had fallen. Bethune went on down the road and met a pitiable sight. Straggling away from the ruins of Málaga were wounded men. women and children, hardly able to wa.k. The Canadian van was swamped. Bethune took the children first and began what was to be a four-day, four-night rescue service. On his second trip back to Almería he asked if the children had been fed. Fnraged that they hadn’t. Sise says, he grabbed a large bowl, filled it with his own rations of milk, bread and sugar and handed around mugs.
Bethune was only in Spain seven months. But in that time he had established the first mobile blood transfusion unit ever to operate on the front line. Dr. Duran Jorda of Barcelona continued the work on a Blood Bank and became chief of the Blood Transfusion Service of th: Spanish Republican Army. Bethune gets the credit for initiating the mobile delivery experiment.
The Spaniards were left with an impression of a whirlwind, gray-haired foreigner who shouted at them in a strange language and kept turning up in the thick of the fighting wearing an odd sort of battledress that had CANADA on the shoulder and the star of the Spanish Republic on the pocket.
The Spanish Republic's Canadian bl >odbank needed money if it were to survive and back in Montreal. June 1937, Bethune tried to raise it. By that time the issue had become clouded. No one knew w'hat the antifascists in Spain stood for. There were communists among them. Bethune told a packed Mount Royal Arena that those who cried "communist menace” w'ere playing into fascist hands. "Spain can be the tomb of fascism,” he said. "History will one day take revenge on those who fail her.” That was the day Sandy McIntosh decided the man should have been an actor.
After that he went across Canada speaking and in Vancouver a woman who had known him in Montreal was so overwhelmed by his effect on the crowd that she left, sure they would riot.
By this time Bethune had become a legend. Everyone was talking about the doctor who had gone to Spain. People took sides. Was he just an erratic superficial misfit, with an undoubted medical talent which he abused, who never found his niche here and sought fame championing other people’s causes? Or was he a great humanitarian, an idealist, a man ahead of his time?
A young writer from the Maritimes had come to Montreal the year before Bethune left for Spain. He never met him. Years later, Hugh MacLennan, author of the best-selling The Watch That Ends The Night, finds himself saying over and over again that Jerome Martell was not consciously modeled after Bethune. Both men, he admits, had a quality that w'as “quite mysterious” but people who see Bethune in the book's hero are looking for an identity he never planned.
French author André Malraux writes
about Bethune in Man’s Hope. Toronto
writer J. Tuzo Wilson talks about him in One Chinese Moon. His biography was written by Ted Allan and Sydney Gordon in The Scalpel, the Sword.
On January 2. 1938. the Bethune legend turned into a mystery. He boarded a ship at Vancouver headed for Hong Kong. He was on his way to help Chinese communist forces fighting the Japanese. He had told friends in New' York that he felt the Chinese Reds were putting up the only real opposition to the Japanese invaders. Besides, he wanted to go. A Montreal doctor. a close friend of Bethune and his wife.
who had tried to figure him out for years, may come close when he says, “He always gave me the feeling that if anything appealed to him he must take action on it.” The Communist Party today says Bethune joined in 1938.
By the time Bethune reached Hankow and set out for Yenan where the 8th Route Army (Red guerrillas) had dug in behind the Japanese lines, word had reached New' York that he’d been captured and killed by the Japanese. In fact. Bethune made the rugged trip safely to Yenan by train, foot and mule. One of the first men he met
there was the leader of China’s communists. Mao Tse-tung. He described the meeting in his diary. Mao, apparently, was impressed by Bethune’s promise of seventyfive percent recovery if given a mobile unit to operate at the front. Bethune was made Medical Adviser to the district and given funds to start a Model Hospital as a first step.
From now on we depend on Bethune’s papers for his story. Few of his letters got through the blockade to his friends outside but he made carbons and he managed to keep a vivid diary all through the strenuous days that followed. Perhaps after all he was writing for posterity.
In five frantic weeks Bethune supervised the reconstruction of the hospital. The army got its first operating table. A school was started for doctors and nurses. Operating by day, Bethune worked on a medical textbook at night. Even the stoic Chinese had never seen anything like the tireless pace he set. They begged him to rest when the hospital was ready. “Go to the wounded. Don’t wait for the wounded to come to you,” he told them and, with a caravan which included a portable operating theatre, he set out for the Wutai Mountains where the Japanese were attacking. At each village he stopped and treated the wounded. At night he slept out under the stars. At the bigger centres he asked for mail from home. No letters or papers got through. He got some food and Canadian cigarettes.
As the second year came round, 2,500 wounded filled the base hospitals he had set up. There were 200,000 troops in the field. Bethune’s fame had run up and down the guerrilla camps. Through blizzards he followed the fighting and often his very presence seems to have given courage for battle. By this time Bethune was watching his supplies of forceps, surgical scissors, catgut and anesthetics run down — and then out.
The strain was beginning to tell. Photographs show a Bethune almost unrecognizable to Montrealers who knew him. Bent, thin and weatherbeaten he looked like a man of seventy-five. His hair and the heard he had grown were white. Only the piercing eyes and intent expression were the same.
October came and with it the date Bethune had agreed to return to America. Then, fresh attacks were reported from the east and he postponed his date of departure for a month.
He was operating one morning when the Japanese sprang a surprise attack and runners came to warn him of the danger. He went on with what he was doing but in the process cut his finger. It was fatal and, in a day and a night, septicemia set in. He died on November 13, 1939, just two months after the rest of his world had gone to war.
His Chinese comrades were stunned by their loss. The one who had been his interpreter wrote of No-er-nmn Pai-Chu-en: “He had brought life to our wounded. He had healed our children. We will build him a tomb in the hills. We will never forget him.”
Twenty years later a small group of French-speaking Montrealers accepted an invitation to visit Peking. Yes, of course they heard all about Bethune. He was one of Red China’s five national heroes. He had been a friend of Mao Tse-tung and Mao Tse-tung was the man who made heroes.
But they realized there was something else about Bethune. To the Chinese people he had represented something new in the way of foreigners. Unlike any others they had seen he was not a “conquistador” and not a missionary. He was a doctor who had come to help them. No wonder they wanted to sing at his hospital in Montreal, ^