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Healing in Medicine: Norman Bethune

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Social Work
Wordcount: 2011 words Published: 11th Apr 2017

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The True Spirit of Healing in Medicine: Norman Bethune


Henry Norman Bethune was a Canadian doctor who became famous for his selfless service of people in the Second Sino-Japanese War. His service endeared him to Mao Zedong, who hailed him as a communist and supporter of the Chinese people’s efforts for liberation. Even today, Bethune’s popularity in China stands undisputed with his statues present all over the country. There is no doubt that Bethune had in him the true spirit of healing, a unique spirit, because doctors often perceive their professions as scientific pursuits or even money making endeavors. This is illustrated in the manner in which pharmaceutical companies and doctors work hand in hand to achieve profits and market prominence by selling medicines. Bethune’s dedication to his profession was illustrated in the manner in which he served in the World War I and the Spanish Civil War before his stint in the Sino-Japanese War, in spite of his open contention that wars were meant to make profits (Shepherd and Lévesque 147). He was known repeatedly state that “the private economic profit” (Clarkson 40; Stewart and Stewart 317; Wilson 75) should have no place in medicine. In addition, he was also a proficient inventor, who designed and altered several surgical instruments, such as the portable blood transfusion system he developed in the Spanish Civil War (Stewart and Stewart 92, 95). Moreover, many of his inventions continue to be in use today (Stewart and Stewart 92, 95). It is also notable that while Bethune passionately and dedicatedly adhered to his professional ideals, he also had clear political ideologies. In the Spanish Civil War, he sided with the democratic republic and during the Second Sino-Japanese War, he sided with the rural population in China and accepted communism as opposed to Imperialism. However, today he is heralded in China for his communist ethoses, which were very different from the communism that was practiced in China under Mao Zedong. This paper contends that Bethune was not simply a doctor by profession but also a healer at heart who formed political ideals according to the welfare of humanity, and thus, his image as a communist leader in and outside China might be somewhat misconstrued.


Bethune’s ideology behind traveling all the way to China in 1938 and to serve the people in the Sino-Japanese War was to aid the suffering and poor people there. This was in line with his endeavors in his life thus far, that is, in World War I and the Spanish Civil War. He also carried out crisis surgical procedures on the casualties in the war as well as instituted training for medical personnel for the same (Stewart and Stewart 32). He also refused to treat the casualties by considering their race, culture, political side, or even the side in the war (Stewart and Stewart 32). Clearly, he was dedicated to the cause of serving his patients, irrespective of the social conditions. As a doctor, he treated the people who were suffering and sick. He was also believed in the communist ideologies, that is, those that had been propounded by Marx and was a member of the Canadian Communist Party (Stewart and Stewart 124). This was in spite of the fact that in those days, it was illegal to be a part of the communist party in Canada (Stewart and Stewart 124). However, this was naturally because of the conflicts between what would become the allied and axis powers in the World War II. In fact, most people in Canada associated communism with Stalinist and Nazi policies of control (Stewart and Stewart 371). Moreover, the United States’ staunch anti-communist policies must have also influenced the Canadian policies. However, in Bethune’s philosophy, the poor, proletariats, who were subjugated under capitalism or were the casualties in war, should be side he supports. Consequently, he became a part of the communist party in Canada, because he believed in Marxist philosophies, which communists promised to practice. Clearly, his political ideology was founded in his dedication to his professional and moral ideal of serving the suffering and the weak.

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When Mao Zedong welcomed Bethune as a communist comrade, he was impressed with Bethune’s dedication to the communist ideals. Bethune illustrated his ideals with his dedication to his profession and by serving in the frontlines in the war. As mentioned before, this was not different from the manner in which he served in World War I and the Spanish Civil War. However, Mao interpreted Bethune’s work and ideologies as his dedication to the communist cause and the cause of the people. It must be remembered that under Mao’s rule, there was no growth of the proletariats and the Chinese economy collapsed as all the contributing members to the economy, such as, doctors, owners of industries, and lawyers were banished from their jobs to serve in the rural areas. In such conditions, the overall suffering, illness, and pain experienced by the Chinese people were probably worse if not as bad as in Imperial China. Although Bethune died in China of blood poisoning, while serving in the Second Sino-Japanese War, he was, nevertheless, unaware of the true ethos of the brand of communism that would be practiced by Mao. Considering his ideals, he would have probably never wanted to be a part of this kind of communism. Ultimately, Bethune was a man who wanted to serve the people and not simply have a political ideal, where personal and profit goals were in focus. Today, it can be said that communism and democracy have both failed in the ability to separate the profit making processes from the social serving ones. Given these facts, Bethune would have probably sought to be a part of a more humanitarian political ideology.

Notably, Bethune’s legacy rests on the fact that Mao published an essay on him—In the Memory of Norman Bethune in 1939—for unselfishly serving in the Second Sino-Japanese War. This essay was considered essential reading in Chinese schools then and even today, students are required to be familiar with this essay. Indeed, the philosophy of the essay is in tune with Bethune’s philosophies. Consider the following excerpt from the essay:

We Chinese Communists must also follow this line in our practice. We must unite with the proletariat of all the capitalist countries, with the proletariat of Japan, Britain, the United States, Germany, Italy and all other capitalist countries, for this is the only way to overthrow imperialism, to liberate our nation and people and to liberate the other nations and peoples of the world (Tse-tung)

Clearly, Bethune would have been glad to be associated with such ideologies. He expressed his views on his profession by stating that, “medicine, as we are practising it, is a luxury trade” (Allan and Gordon 130). He further abhorred the use of monetary ends in practicing medicine and believed individualism, which is always associated with democracy and never with communism, as the reason for such a state of affairs (Allan and Gordon 130). However, Bethune died well before the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s started. This was a time when millions of Chinese died because communism had turned to totalitarianism (Yan and Gao 2). The death toll in the Chinese Cultural Revolution has not been released by the Chinese government until date (Yan and Gao 2). However, this was a time when people were ruthlessly massacred by governmental encouragement of mobs and by authorized attacks on civilian populations by military personnel (Yan and Gao 2). Moreover, the anti-democracy stand Bethune held would have probably been shaken if he had lived to experience the shock the world felt when the truth that Hitler carried out genocides in Germany was publicly known and acknowledged after World War II. However, since he never lived to experience such events, and thoroughly believed communism to be anti-exploitation, he stood by it while practicing his medical ideologies.

It can also be recalled that Bethune was virtually unknown in Canada well after he died. Canadians and the rest of the Western world did not know about him until 1952, when Ted Allan and Sydney Gordon published their book, The Scalpel, the Sword: The Story of Doctor Norman Bethune (a new version is mentioned in the works cited section of this paper). However, unfortunately, they hailed him as a communist hero in this book. However, the timing could not have been worse, because in this Cold War era, anti-communist feelings thrived in Canada (Stewart and Stewart 327). Thus, Bethune’s contributions to science and his altruism were well forgotten until much later. Only in the past few decades, especially since China has cautiously opened its doors to the western world for trade has Bethune’s abilities and work been acknowledged. Today it is known that Bethune was among the original advocates of socialized medicine, which is in high demand in Canada and in the rest of western world—the Obamacare policies next door are perhaps the best examples of this. Bethune also formed the Montreal Group for the Security of People’s Health (Stewart and Stewart 371), which established the need for socialized medicine. Bethune has also visited the Soviet Union to understand and learn about socialized medicine (Stewart and Stewart 122). Such endeavors eased his way into the political ideology that was communism and thus, he became a part of the Communist Party of Canada. In the most unbeknownst manner, he became a part of a political thought that defied the altruism fundamental to his ideologies.


This paper illustrated the manner in which Bethune contributed toward the development of medicine and struggled to treat the injured and the sick as a doctor. Undeniably, he endeavoured to achieve his professional idealism through his research and treatment as in shown by his inventions. Similarly, as became aware of the social and economic characteristics of disease, he adopted a political thought that he believed cared for the proletariats and the suffering as he did. However, he was not well informed about the nature of such communism or even to of democracy. As time showed, both were capable of exploitation, and in fact, communism enabled totalitarianism—a concept that Bethune would have definitely abhorred considering his ideologies. It can be thus concluded from the facts presented in this paper that Bethune was indeed a dedicated doctor, who truly adhered by the Hippocratic Oath as well as formed political ideals keeping the welfare of humanity in mind. However, his image as a communist leader in and outside China has been misconstrued over the years, since he died well before the harms of communism were experienced by the world.

Work Cited

Allan, Ted and Sydney Gordon. The Story of Doctor Norman Bethune. Dundurn Press: Dundurn. 2009. Print.

Clarkson, Adrienne. Extraordinary Canadians: Norman Bethune. Toronto: Penguin Canada. 2009. Print.

Stewart, Roderick and Stewart, Sharon. Phoenix: The Life of Norman Bethune. Toronto: McGill-Queen’s Press .

Shephard, David A. E, and Andrée Lévesque. Norman Bethune: His Times and His Legacy. Ottawa, Ontario: Published by the Canadian Public Health Association, 1982. Print.

Tse-tung, Mao. In Memory of Norman Bethune. 1939. Web. Accessed on April 15, 2015 from https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-2/mswv2_25.htm.

Wilson, John. Norman Bethune. Dundurn: Dundurn Press. 1999. Print.

Yan, Jiaqi, and Gao Gao. Turbulent Decade: A History of the Cultural Revolution. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawai’i Press, 1996. Print.


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