A physician for the ages
The University of Toronto remembers Norman Bethune’s legacy with a sculpture and gala.
politics – judged him harshly, dismissing him as too impulsive to be considered a great surgeon.
An appreciation of Bethune’s life and legacy began to emerge with the rapprochement between Canada and the People’s Republic of China in 1970. Two years later the Canadian government officially recognized his historical significance: the manse in Gravenhurst where he was born was purchased by Parks Canada and in 1976 became a national museum. The same year, Place NormanBethune [Bethune Square] was created in downtown Montreal, dominated by a replica of the statue in Shijiazhuang donated by the Chinese government. In 1979, the fortieth anniversary of his death was marked by ceremonies in both China and Canada, including a three-day conference at McGill University.
A more comprehensive picture of Bethune’s accomplishments followed, beginning in 1982 as the Canadian and Chinese governments agreed to exchange copies of documents and artifacts. Since then, a large volume of additional Canadian, Chinese and Spanish sources have been brought to light. Numerous books and articles have been published, including several substantial biographies, along with many photographs and examples of Bethune’s artwork, letters, literary and scientific writings.
By the centenary of Bethune’s birth in 1990, he was becoming better known and regarded in his homeland. Commemorative postage stamps were jointly issued by Canada and China, and his life – already the subject of a documentary and television programs – was chronicled in a feature film starring long-time Bethune admirer, Donald Sutherland. In 1998 he was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, and in August 2000 a bronze sculpture was unveiled in front of the Gravenhurst Opera House by the town’s mayor, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, and the Chinese ambassador. Dr. Norman Bethune had finally come home.
In the lobby of the Medical Sciences Building at the University of Toronto, a bilingual English–Mandarin plaque honouring “Dr. Henry Norman Bethune” for his work in China is prominently displayed along with tributes to several other heroes of the Faculty of Medicine including Banting and Best. In 2000, the Faculty’s Office of International Surgery established a Bethune Round Table, an annual conference on surgery in developing countries inspired by his humanitarian efforts in Spain and China.
This global vision is perhaps Bethune’s most enduring legacy to the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto and to the world. From its earliest years and well into the 20th century, there was a strong missionary element within the Faculty, with many of its graduates serving in foreign lands or in the Canadian north. Although profoundly influenced by his evangelical Presbyterian parents, Bethune’s crusades were motivated by a passionate humanitarianism rather than faith. In her biography of Bethune, Adrienne Clarkson remarks on the irony of his being viewed as “Canada’s greatest missionary” through his service (and sacrifice) in China. Instead, this visionary created a new model of medical aid. “In his two intersections with world history, Bethune seemed to know what new directions social forces were taking and how he could influence them. He made history. … He put himself into events before there was any organized intervention.”
Bethune’s medical humanitarianism lives on in emergency aid organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières as well as numerous international and global health initiatives worldwide. The Faculty of Medicine has become increasingly engaged in these activities in recent years. Global health is a core commitment of the new Dalla Lana School of Public Health, established in 2008 at the University of Toronto, and a growing area of focus in other departments.
Bethune’s medical innovations have been similarly far-reaching. Although most of the instruments he devised for chest surgery have since been rendered obsolete by advances in the treatment of tuberculosis, his introduction of mobile blood transfusion services at the battle front represents an enduring contribution to military medicine. His proposal for universal health care, considered so revolutionary during the 1930s, would eventually be adopted in Canada and many other countries. Edward Shorter is the Jason A. Hannah Professor, History of Medicine, at the University of Toronto. The University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine will celebrate the legacy of Dr. Norman Bethune with the installation of a bronze sculpture in his likeness at their St. George Campus on May 30 and during the Norman Bethune Gala on May 31. For more information about the gala, please visit www. bethunegala.com.