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Canadian History for Kids: Dr. Norman Bethune

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One and Canadian History for Kids have assembled 31 remarkable stories about incredible people, places and events which helped shape our amazing nation.

A grateful nation never forgets a hero.

There are many significant stories to be told about the ‘war to end all wars’.

The Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) played an essential role in keeping soldiers alive. Casualties among Canadian troops in France and Belgium were so heavy that more than half of all Canadian physicians served overseas to treat them.

One of those brave stretcher bearers was Dr. Norman Bethune.

When WW1 started, Bethune suspended his doctor training and joined the No 2 Field Ambulance in 1914 as a stretcher-bearer. Born in Gravenhurst, Ontario, he went to the University of Toronto to study as a physician.

He served on the Western Front and was wounded by shrapnel, spending three months in an English hospital to recover. Returning to Canada, he completed his Medical Degree in 1916 and then joined the Royal Navy the following year as a Surgeon-Lieutenant, treating injured servicemen at Chatham Hospital in the UK.

Bethune was a medical innovator. During the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Bethune developed the world’s first mobile blood-transfusion service and medical unit while working as a volunteer doctor in the Republican Army.

Later, Bethune, who was a member of the Canadian Communist Party, went to China in 1938 and helped to establish medical services amidst the fighting against the Japanese invaders.

He died of blood poisoning from a cut he sustained on his hand during an operation while under fire at his mobile surgical unit during the Sino-Japanese War of 1939. His achievements were recognised posthumously thanks largely to a tributary article written by Mao Tsang. His mobile surgical units were later used as the model for the design of the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) by the US Army.

In 1936, while living in Montreal, Bethune proposed a universal health care system for Canada. Although the suggestion was not eagerly accepted, Bethune’s good works abroad and fascinating ideas would eventually find a place in the Canadian medical system.

As a concerned doctor in Montreal during the economic depression years of the 1930s, Bethune frequently sought out the poor and gave them free medical care.

Canada remembers Bethune as a medical genius; China reveres him as a saint.

Bethune is one of the few Westerners to whom China has dedicated statues, of which many have been erected in his honour throughout the country.

In the CBC’s The Greatest Canadian program in 2004, he was voted the 26th Greatest Canadian by viewers.

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