Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Communist's Daughter

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The Communist's Daughter

by Dennis Bock

The Communist's Daughter by Dennis Bock X
The Communist's Daughter by Dennis Bock
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2007, 304 pages
    Mar 2008, 304 pages


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Beyond the Book

This article relates to The Communist's Daughter

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Henry Norman Bethune (Mar 3, 1890 - Nov 12, 1939), known as Norman, was born in Gravenhurst, Ontario. He interrupted his studies at the University of Toronto to set up classes for immigrants in a bush lumber camp in northern Ontario and then, at the outbreak of World War I, enlisted in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. While serving as as stretcher bearer in France, he was wounded at Ypres and returned home to finish up his medical studies, receiving his M.D. in 1916. In 1917 he re-enlisted in the Royal Navy.

After demobilization, he remained in England for post-graduate studies and, in 1923, married Frances Campbell Penney, the daughter of a prominent Edinburgh accountant. They moved to Detroit where Bethune set up his first and only private practice. Two years later he contracted tuberculosis. Some sources say that he was divorced by his wife, others say that he divorced her as he was convinced he would die and didn't want her to suffer with him during the time. Either way, she returned to Scotland.

Due to an innovative new technique known as "compression therapy", Bethune recovered and dedicated himself to the eradication of tuberculosis. From 1928 - 1936, he worked as a thoracic surgeon in Montreal and was responsible for developing over a dozen new surgical instruments and wrote numerous articles. However, he became disillusioned with medical practice after seeing the patients he'd saved with surgery falling sick and dying because of their squalid living conditions.

In 1935, he visited the Soviet Union and, on his return, became an early proponent of universal healthcare* (some sources say he also secretly joined the Communist Party). He opened a health clinic for the unemployed, making himself unpopular with both the government and other doctors who thought his ideas too radical.

*By the 1950s, most of Canada enjoyed some degree of free health coverage, but it was not until the 1984 Canada Health Act that Canadians gained fully universal health care free of any user fees.

Although one of the top paid doctors in Canada, when invited to head up the Canadian Medical Unit in Madrid by the Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, he accepted and left for Spain in 1936, where he stayed until the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939.

While in Spain, he created the first mobile blood-transfusion unit which could transport on one mule enough supplies to treat 500 wounded. On a number of occasions Bethune and his colleagues noticed that the blood they transfused didn't work and the patient died. Karl Landsteiner and Alexander Wiener's identification of the Rh factor in blood was to solve this mystery shortly after in 1937.

On January 8 1938, Bethune left Canada for the last time, accompanied by Canadian nurse Jean Ewen and $5000 worth of medical supplies, to aid Mao Tse-tung and the Red Army in their fight against the invading Japanese. He became Medical Chief of the Red Army and trained thousands of Chinese as medics. He died in China of an infection contracted during surgery. When Chairman Mao heard of his death, he wrote "In Memory of Norman Bethune", which is now required reading in China. Bethune, known as Pai-ch'iu-en ("white weeks grace") is considered a martyr by the Chinese and memorials erected to extol his example can be found throughout the country.

In 1976 the Canadian government purchased his father's house, which is now restored as the Bethune Memorial House.

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Communist's Daughter. It originally ran in March 2007 and has been updated for the March 2008 paperback edition.

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