Dr Norman Bethune

photo of Dr Norman Bethune

Dr Norman Bethune (1890 – 1939) was an outstanding thoracic surgeon who broke with medical conventions of the time to campaign for a socialised health care service in his native Canada.

Having suffered tuberculosis himself, he saw first hand how poor people died of the disease while the rich survived. He said of the medical profession:

“We set ourselves in practice, all smug and satisfied, like tailor shops. We patch an arm, a leg, the way a tailor patches an old coat. We’re not practicing medicine, really, we’re carrying on a cash-and-carry trade. I’ll tell you what’s needed: A new medical concept of universal health protection, a new concept of the function of a doctor.

He fought in the Spanish civil war, supporting Republicans battling Franco’s fascists. He developed a mobile blood transfusion service for front-line operations on the battlefield, and invented a range of surgical instruments (including rib shears) still in use today.

In 1938 Dr Bethune convinced his comrades in the Canadian Communist Party to send him to China, to help organise medical care for Mao Tse Tung’s 8th Route Army during their fight against the imperial Japanese invasion. He arranged mobile surgical units and blood banks for front line troops, treating both wounded Chinese and Japanese soldiers. It was here that he wrote his famous text “Wounds” in the early hours of one morning in 1939, excoriating the capitalist class for the wars and suffering they unleash on the world in pursuit of profit. It concludes:

What do these enemies of the human race look like? Do they wear on their foreheads a sign so that they may be told, shunned and condemned as criminals? No. On the contrary. They are the respectable ones. They are honoured. They call themselves, and are called, gentlemen. What a travesty on the name, Gentlemen! They are the pillars of the state, of the church, of society. They support private and public charity out of the excess of their wealth. They endow institutions. In their private lives they are kind and considerate. They obey the law, their law, the law of property. But there is one sign by which these gentle gunmen can be told. Threaten a reduction on the profit of their money and the beast in them awakes with a snarl. They become ruthless as savages, brutal as madmen, remorseless as executioners. Such men as these must perish if the human race is to continue. There can be no permanent peace in the world while they live. Such an organization of human society as permits them to exist must be abolished.

These men make the wounds.”

Norman Bethune died on November 12th 1939 of septicaemia, after he cut his finger during an operation on a wounded Chinese soldier.

A detailed account of Norman Bethune’s life can be found here.

Jonathan Fluxman