Final part of a 3-part series on the life of Norman Bethune: Canadian doctor, internationalist, and revolutionary hero.
by J.D. Benjamin
Basics Issue #13 (Apr/May 2009)
The year 1937 marked the beginning of full-scale war between the Republic of China and the Japanese empire. Bethune saw China as the next great flashpoint in the worldwide struggle against fascism. "Spain and China, are part of the same battle," he wrote. "I am going to China because that is where the need is the greatest."
In 1938, Norman Bethune arrived in China and insisted on traveling to the North to join the Communists who were fighting a guerrilla war against the Japanese. Once there, he set about performing emergency battlefield surgery, training new medical staff, producing manuals and organizing mobile medical facilities. The conditions were extreme. Bethune traveled 4,800 kilometers in the course of his duties and once operated on 115 cases in 69 hours without rest, even when his team came under heavy artillery fire. Yet Bethune did not complain. "It is true I am tired," he wrote, "but I don't think I have been so happy for a long time. I am needed."
The Chinese were amazed by this foreigner who had adopted their cause as his own and was literally willing to give them his blood. Bethune in turn was humbled by the Chinese dedication to liberate themselves and build a better world.
In late October 1939, Bethune was on a tour inspecting hospitals when a nearby brigade of the People’s Liberation Army came under attack by the Japanese. While operating on wounded soldiers, Bethune cut his finger, something he had done several times before. This time, infection set in. Bethune continued to work as best he could until the regimental commander, seeing Bethune’s deterioration, ordered him sent back. On November 12, in a small village in Hopei Province, Bethune died of blood poisoning.
Chairman Mao Zedong, leader of the Communist Party of China, had only met Bethune once, but upon hearing of his death Mao wrote an essay that would be studied by hundreds of millions of people in China and around the world. ‘In Memory of Norman Bethune’ praised his internationalism and devotion to the people. Mao held up Bethune as a model to be emulated, writing, "We must all learn the spirit of absolute selflessness from him. With this spirit everyone can be very helpful to each other. A man's ability may be great or small, but if he has this spirit, he is already noble-minded and pure, a man of moral integrity and above vulgar interests, a man who is of value to the people."
When we compare Mao's estimation of Bethune with Bethune as a younger man, we can see the profound changes he had gone through. Gone was the Bethune of just a few years previous, with his drinking, womanizing, impatience and individualism. His commitment to serving the people and being part of a movement for a better society made him overcome these problems. He became not just a better person, but a hero for working people all over the world.