Review: Biography

Phoenix: The Life of Norman Bethune, reviewed by Michael Bliss

Special to The Globe and Mail

Dr. Norman Bethune in Chan-Si, a border region of China, probably in 1939.

Medicine is a humanitarian profession. Most doctors use their skills to reduce suffering and save lives. Good doctors sacrifice their time and sometimes their health on behalf of their patients. Medical students are, for the most part, highly idealistic. While some practising physicians appear to sell out to materialism, many others work very long hours for less than banker's wages. There are not many physicians' lives that do not involve acts of good work and quiet heroism.

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Norman Bethune (1890-1939) may still be the best-known and most celebrated physician in modern Canadian history. Roderick and Sharon Stewart have spent decades tracking down knowledge of Bethune's life in Canada, his work in Spain during its civil war, and his service as a guerrilla doctor to communist forces in China. They have read everything by and about Bethune and interviewed everyone who knew him. Their well-written, exhaustive and highly readable Phoenix: The Life of Norman Bethune should become the definitive basis for all serious discussion of Bethune. Because the book is so thorough and so objective, it will spark a more informed debate about the meaning of his career.

The son of a Presbyterian minister who failed repeatedly because of his arrogance and irascibility, Bethune, according to the Stewarts, repeated his father's misadventures in a medical milieu. Bethune could not get along with anyone for any length of time, alienating colleagues, friends and the various women he compulsively pursued. He was not a good or respected surgeon, for he imperilled patients' lives with haste and sloppiness. The Stewarts speculate that he had a borderline personality disorder

The Canadian communists who funded Bethune's medical work in Spain in 1936-37 were appalled by his wild drinking and spending and inability to get along with the Spaniards. They effectively conspired with the Republic to force him out of Spain and back to Canada where they could use him for propaganda purposes. The Spanish, who had been appalled by Bethune's arrogance, chauvinism and administrative incompetence, were glad to see him go. Claims that he was a great innovator in emergency battlefield medicine have no foundation.

Realizing that he had "blotted my copybook" [211]/note> in Spain and that he had no future in medicine in Canada, Bethune went to China in 1938 to seek redemption as a good communist doctor in the war against Japan. He found it, the Stewarts think, by rising, phoenix-like, to several months' of high levels of sacrifice and service tending to wounded soldiers of Mao Zedong's Eighth Route Army before dying of the effects of septicemia.

Not an innovator in China either, Bethune had continued to abuse and alienate his fellow workers. The American and Canadian communist organizations that had financed his mission gave him no ongoing support, ignoring his pleas for money and supplies. Even the circumstances of his apparent martyrdom are qualified by knowledge that he was angling to get out of China before his final illness.

"Bethune's fame", the Stewarts conclude, "is largely the result of one historical event - the ultimate victory of the Chinese communists over the Guodmindang in the Chinese civil war. Had that not occurred, his life would be a footnote…" [377]/note> His deeds have been immortalized for political purposes, first by the government of China during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, then by the government of Canada in the 1970s as it tried to suck up to China and the Chinese. The campaign to celebrate Bethune largely succeeded.

Norman Bethune's brief moment of success in a life of failure hardly compares to the achievements of countless physicians, from country practitioners and laboratory researchers through skilled surgeons through the thousands of Christian medical missionaries who first brought Western medicine to China. These are among the everyday heroes of real medicine. Still, it is possible for readers of the Stewarts' excellent biography to conclude that Norman Bethune achieved a kind of glamorous battlefield humanitarianism and a degree of personal satisfaction. Even the worst doctor usually does some good in this suffering world.

Michael Bliss's most recent book is The Making of Modern Medicine: Turning Points in the Treatment of Disease .

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