“Phoenix: The Life of Norman Bethune” by Roderick and Sharon Stewart

This is the most complete biography so far of the controversial Canadian doctor, Norman Bethune.

Written by the Toronto history professor, Roderick Stewart and his wife Sharon, it includes new research into Bethune’s medical adventures in Spain, as well as China. Born in l890 in Gravenhurst, son of a Presbyterian minister, Norman Bethune went to World War I, the tenth man in Toronto to enlist, was wounded at Ypres, but returned to join the British Navy. In civilian life, he practised medicine in Montreal. As a surgeon he was quick and ruthless, often antagonizing fellow doctors and shouting at the nurses.

In l935 he went to a congress in Russia and came home determined to get medicare into Canada. In l938 he went to Spain to fight the fascists. Later that year he left Vancouver for China, where Japan had invaded that country. It was in China he drove himself to death, operating where there was no one to watch him but the sick and wounded and no word from an outside world to tell him he was not fighting a lost cause. He got an infection and died, aged forty-nine, in November, l939, two months after his own world had gone to war.

People who knew Bethune in Canada found him so eager to change the world that he broke all rules of human behaviour. In China, on the other hand, they found him a hero, one of only five national heroes in that country.

It is a provocative story that Stewart has told in two earlier books on Bethune and should become the definitive basis for all serious discussion on Norman Bethune.

Review by Anne McDougall