Bethune is best known for his medical and missionary work in China, and for meeting Mao Tse-tung during the leader’s Long March through the country in 1938.
He is considered a hero in China for treating soldiers and civilians and helping save lives with the blood transfusion methods he devised.
Bethune’s creativity in the fields of surgery and blood transfusion, applied during the Sino-Japanese war, helped shape modern approaches to critical care in the battlefield with the first centralized blood collection and delivery systems, a precursor to the modern day MASH units.
After Bethune’s death in 1939 — from blood poisoning he contracted while operating on a wounded soldier — Mao wrote, “we must all learn the spirit of absolute selflessness from him. With this spirit everyone can be very useful to the people. 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…a man who is of value to the people.”
Adrienne Clarkson (MA English ’62), who wrote a book about Bethune, remarked that “in his two intersections with world history, in Spain and China, Bethune seemed to know what new directions social forces were taking and how he could influence them. He made history; it was unnecessary to wait, as Bismarck said we must, while it was being made around him. He put himself into events before there was any organized intervention.”
Born in Gravenhurst, Ontario, Bethune took a year off from studying at U of T in the winter of 1911 to work as a labourer-instructor in a logging camp in Northern Ontario. In a letter from the camp, he wrote to an administrator in the Frontier College office in Toronto saying “I assure you I appreciate your kindness more than I can say in sending the (University of Toronto) Varsity. It was extremely thoughtful of you.”
In The Politics of Passion: Norman Bethune’s Writing and Art, editor Larry Hannant writes that “Bethune’s life was dominated by a deep need to express himself, and he did so with characteristic zeal and abundant talent. In surgery, love, politics, painting, sketches, poetry, letters, short stories, photography, radio broadcasts and plays, public speaking, even medical articles and instruments, Bethune’s intense desire to communicate his passions found outlets.”