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Interesting People

Norman Bethune (1890-1939)

Photograph of Dr. Norman Bethune, 1920

Dr. Norman Bethune, Gravenhurst, Ontario, 1920

One of China's great heroes isn't Chinese at all -- he's Canadian! Norman Bethune was born in Gravenhurst, Ontario in 1890, a long way from northwestern China where he died from blood poisoning in 1939. After working as a stretcher bearer in the First World War until he was wounded at Ypres, France, Norman continued his medical studies at the University of Toronto. He then re-enlisted as a surgeon in the British navy, spending the last six months of the war as a medical officer with Canadian airmen in France. This was just the beginning of a long list of contributions that Norman made to helping mankind. He set up a free medical clinic for the poor in Montréal. He invented and refined many surgical instruments, some of which are still in use today.

During the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Norman pioneered mobile blood transfusion services to bring donated blood to those wounded in battle. Bethune left for China in 1938, when he learned that there were not enough trained doctors to take care of the people wounded in the war with Japan. Dr. Bethune began to train individuals in first aid, sanitary practices and simple surgical procedures. He established teaching and nursing hospitals and developed mobile medical services and led mobile units through the mountains on horseback. In October 1939, while operating without surgical gloves on a wounded soldier, Dr. Bethune accidentally cut his hand. He developed an infection that, without the needed penicillin, developed into blood poisoning. He died on November 12, 1939.

Mao Zedong, leader of the People's Republic of China from 1949 to 1976, wrote a tribute to Norman Bethune, an essay that all Chinese schoolchildren were required to read. There is a statue, pavilion, museum, school and hospital dedicated to him in China.

Photograph of Doctor Norman Bethune standing in front of a blood transfusion unit truck, between 1936 and 1938

Norman Bethune in front of a Canadian Blood Transfusion Unit during the Spanish Civil War, between 1936 and 1938

Watercolour self-portrait of Norman Bethune, in which he is lying in bed reading a book entitled MARX, October 8, 1935

Watercolour self-portrait of Norman Bethune lying sick in bed, October 8, 1935


"Bethune, Henry Norman." The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica.
(accessed February 23, 2005).

Bethune Memorial House National Historic Site of Canada. Parks Canada.
(accessed February 23, 2005).

Livesay, Robert. Footprints in the Snow: the Heroes and Heroines of Canada. Mississauga, Ont.: Little Brick Schoolhouse, ©1978.