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Norman Bethune in Clear Focus

Adrienne Clarkson
Adrienne Clarkson

A highlight of this year's meeting of the Bethune Roundtable was a presentation by former Governor General the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, launching her new biography of Norman Bethune. In his opening remarks, University of Toronto President David Naylor thanked Adrienne Clarkson for bringing Norman Bethune into clearer focus for Canadians by telling his story in a dynamic, accessible way. He called the book a gem that: "I couldn't put down, but read in two sittings - exceptional for a university president who usually has the attention span of a 5-yearold." He praised the book for its compelling, economical and poetic language, as he welcomed Adrienne Clarkson as "one who needs no introduction".

Adrienne Clarkson began by acknowledging Lee Errett, recipient of the Bethune Prize, and Terry Donnelly for the work they have done in China, performed in the spirit of Norman Bethune. Historically, Western perceptions of Bethune have been coloured by his political affiliation, but it is Clarkson's contention that he was primarily a practical man whose politics were always driven by his desire to help people as a doctor.

Bethune's commitment to helping people was evident early in his life when he interrupted his medical studies to volunteer in remote logging camps, teaching literacy to immigrant workers, one-third of whom arrived in Canada with tuberculosis. During WWI he served as a stretcherbearer and suffered a shrapnel wound. After the war he opened a practice in the slums of Detroit, where he contracted TB himself. Close to death, he convinced a colleague to perform an artificial pneumothorax, experimental at that time. It saved his life. Bethune was always uncomfortable accepting payment from patients; he believed doctors should be paid by governments, and this aggravated conflicts with some of his colleagues, though he was uniformly liked and praised by his students and patients.

Clarkson described Bethune as having been "lit up by the opportunities to intersect with history, first in Spain and then in China". He went to Spain when civil war broke out because most Spanish doctors supported Franco and the fascists, leaving Republican fighters and supporters underserviced. He developed a transfusions truck, which he brought from London to Madrid. Despite less-than-optimal sanitary and screening conditions, he carried out transfusions on the battlefield because it was "better to live with syphilis than to die." This work proved a valuable propaganda tool for the Republicans who galvanized their supporters to give blood.

Norman Bethune
Norman Bethune

In the early 20th century China was a primary focus for Toronto churches which regularly sent missionaries. As the son of a clergyman, Bethune heard a great deal about their experiences and China came to inhabit a special place in his imagination. So when Japan invaded China in 1937, he was determined to go. He was the only physician in the northwest region of the country, serving 15 million people, both soldiers and civilians, often performing 125 operations a week. He died in 1939 of septicemia, cut by a bone fragment while performing surgery on the battlefield.

Bethune was a member of the Communist party for the last three years of his life - a practical affiliation, Clarkson believes, that arose out of his strong opposition to fascism. For this, he has often been dismissed by Canadian historians, but the Chinese always understood his basic generosity. Their affectionate nickname for him translates as "Big Table", meaning he was capable of welcoming everyone to eat at his table.

The Penguin Extraordinary Canadians series is designed to be concise and readable. Clarkson described it as a "winning format, without tiresome footnotes", that proved to be a great exercise in discipline for herself as a writer.

Julie Roorda
Assistant Editor

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