Memorial House and plaque, 235 John St., Gravenhurst

An internationally-famed humanitarian, surgeon and revolutionary, Norman Bethune was born in this house in 1890. Thirty-two years and 11 months after his death in 1939 in China, the Canadian government opened his home as a memorial site and paid tribute to Norman Bethune as “a Canadian of national historic significance”. A rich display of the major events and places that figured in his life is on exhibit.

Bethune was a pioneer champion of socialized medical care in Canada. As a leading Montreal surgeon he had long dedicated himself to innovative procedures and a social imperative in using his skills to heal people regardless of their income level. In 1935 Bethune organized a group of like-minded doctors, nurses and others concerned with health care to study the possibility of introducing socialized medicine in Canada. The Montreal Group for the Security of the Peoples Health produced a series of pilot plan trials, but their pioneer work fell on the deaf ears of government and the conservative medical profession itself. 

On 17 April 1936 in a formal address, “Medical Care and Modern Society”, Bethune outlined his proposal to members of the Montreal Medico-Chirurgical Society: “The protection of the peoples health should be recognized by the Government as its primary obligation and duty to its citizens. Let us take the profit, the private economic profit, out of medicine, and purify our profession of rapacious individuals. Let us make it disgraceful to enrich ourselves at the expense of the miseries of our fellow man . . . . Let us re-define medical ethics - not as a code of professional etiquette between doctors, but as a code of fundamental morality and justice between medicine and the people”. Much of his early story is told in the remarkable memoir Bethune:The Montreal Years (1978).

Bethune was also a strong supporter of international struggles for socialism. In September 1936 Bethune volunteered to go to Spain where Francisco Franco had led a rebellion against the democratically-elected Spanish Government and as a result precipitated a civil war. Hitler and Mussolini poured troops into Spain in support of Franco. In Spain Bethune developed a mobile blood transfusion unit, banking blood and delivering it to the wounded on the battlefield and elsewhere. When Japan invaded China in the summer of 1937, Bethune once again volunteered, this time to serve with the 8th Route Army, and on 8 January 1938 he left for China. There he took his surgical skills to front-line outposts and gave unstintingly of his professional guidance and organization in the training of medical personnel and hospital units. At the end of October 1939 he was operating on a wounded soldier, when he cut his finger. It developed into a septicaemia and Bethune at 49 was mortally stricken. He is buried at Shih-chia-chuang, the Cemetery of Martyrs. Norman Bethune died a member of the Communist Party of Canada.

See also Ted Allan and Sydney Gordon, The Scalpel, The Sword (1952, 1974), Roderick Stewart, Bethune – His Story in Pictures (1975) and Larry Hannant’s collection, The Politics of Passion: Norman Bethune’s Writing and Art (1998).