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Bethune's work in Spain in developing mobile medical units were the model for the later development of Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) units. The need to provide blood transfusions in a battlefield context led him to develop the first practical method for transporting blood.
He met his death while saving the lives of others; he died on November 12, 1939, of blood poisoning from a cut wound he received during a surgery, whilst with the Communist Party of China's legendary Eighth Route Army in the midst of the second Sino-Japanese War.
Virtually unknown in his homeland during his lifetime, Doctor Bethune finally received international recognition as Chairman Mao Zedong of the People's Republic of China published his essay entitled In Memory of Norman Bethune (original Chinese title : 紀念白求恩), which documented the final months of the doctor's life in China. Mao went ahead and made the essay required reading for the entire Chinese population. Mao wrote in the book's preface: As a selfless internationalist, Doctor Bethune served as a role model for every human being.
What inspired Doctor Bethune to place himself in such dangerous and harsh conditions, being thousands of miles from home and practically working without pay? The CPC asserts that Bethune, a member of the Communist Party of Canada since 1935, acted out of devotion to the Chinese socialist movement. Some in the West, however, have been highly skeptical to the notion and generally believe the doctor's motivation was exclusively based on humanitarian considerations. But the fact remains that Bethune, a member of the Communist Party of Canada, went to Spain soon after joining the party to help in the struggle against fascism, and then went to China to help the Communists there against Japanese imperialism. It is also noted in his most recent biography, The Politics of Passion by Larry Hannant, that he specifically refused to work under Chiang Kai Shek's Nationalist government and insisted on helping the Chinese Communists instead. He is also the only Westerner to have a statue in Communist China and he also has a hospital named in his honour.
Bethune was an early proponent of universal health care, the success of which he observed during a visit to the Soviet Union. As a doctor in Montréal, Bethune frequently sought out the poor and gave them free medical care.
Bethune College at York University, and Dr. Norman Bethune C.I. (Collegiate Institute, a.k.a. high school) in Scarborough, Ontario, were named after Dr. Bethune. Heroic statues of Bethune have been erected throughout China.
Donald Sutherland played Bethune in two biographical films: Bethune (1977) and Bethune: The Making of a Hero (1990). The latter was a co-production of Telefilm Canada, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, FR3 TV France and China Film Co-production.
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