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April 3, 2009

Penguin Books Extraordinary Canadians Series Expands



A year ago Penguin Canada Books started a series of 20 hardcover,compact biographies about outstanding Canadians by outstanding authors with cover portraits by outstanding artists.  Not a bad idea!  I briefly wrote about Emily Carr, Lord Beaverbrook and Nellie McClung last year (see my website for April 11/2008).  All were written by well known Canadian authors and were well done. 

Since then books on Pierre Elliot Trudeau and Big Bear (1825-1888) one of Canada’s most important aboriginal leaders and others  have come out in bookstores.  The Trudeau and Big Bear books are by Nino Ricci and Rudy Wiebe respectively, two of Canada’s best known authors.  The covers are eye catching. 

The series’ General Editor is John Rolston Saul who has written many books including his recent A Fair Country: Telling the Truths About Canada. Saul is married to Adrienne Clarkson our former Governor General (1999-2005) who has written one of the series books on Dr. Norman Bethune the brilliant and iconoclastic doctor.  Saul will also write one of the books.  The series has been called “the most ambitious set of biographies ever published in this country”. Most of the extraordinary Canadians written about in the series have had extensive and often scholarly biographies written about them already.  Penguin thinks that high quality 150-200 page biographies by outstanding Canadian authors written for the general public have an important role for the thousands of readers who would stay away from lengthy tomes.  I have read a couple of the Penguin books and think they are great and I look forward to reading more.  I have read extensively on Dr. Norman Bethune and look forward to the new book on him by Adrienne Clarkson out this month. 

Dr. Norman Bethune 

Penguin says their books are about “rebels, reformers, martyrs, writers, painters, thinkers and political leaders”.  Dr. Norman Bethune belongs in most of these categories and has been called “perhaps the most famous Canadian who ever lived” which stretches it a bit. 

Norman Bethune operating in China. A Chinese stamp based on this photo was widely distributed in China. 

Before looking at Bethune it should be mentioned that his genius was tainted or made interesting, depending on your point of view, by a rebellious and egocentric, compulsive personality that offended many.  Like some of my favourite Canadians such as Grey Owl, and Glen Gould, Bethune died before age 50 making his career all the more remarkable. 

Bethune was born in Gravenhurst where his father was a Presbyterian Minister.  His grandfather was a highly successful doctor and professor.  The family moved regularly and Norman very early showed remarkable independence and a forceful personality. 

Roderick Stewart wrote a highly successful book called Bethune in 1973 and another The Mind of Norman Bethune in i977. 

Stewart recorded Bethune’s movement from University to a lumber camp on Georgian Bay where he taught the lumberjacks to read, to Medical School and to Europe in WWI.  When wounded he returned to Medical School and got his degree and went back to Europe.  He married, divorced and remarried the same beautiful woman. When he got T.B. at age 36 he insisted on a new and untested treatment and recovered and became a specialist in Thoracic surgery and moved to Montreal.  While there, he wrote articles and designed equipment that improved medical practice. He was an artist and poet and led an active social life. 

His social conscience led him to offer free clinics in Montreal for the poor and he became critical of the social system.  He visited Russia and became a member of the Communist Party of Canada.  In 1936 he went to Spain to fight the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. His development of a mobile blood-transfusion unit saved many lives and set a trend. His experience in Spain is recorded in a chapter in the 2008 book Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War where his brilliant and driven personality are profiled. 

Bethune’s most remarkable achievement was his move to China during their war with Japan where he developed front line medical practices that saved hundreds of lives.  He taught many other medical people there to do the same.  On one occasion he operated on “115 patients non stop over sixty four hours.” On another occasion in 1939 he cut himself and died of blood poisoning.  He is a hero of the Chinese people, the medical profession, and many Canadians. 

His original Gravenhurst home was made into a museum by Parks Canada.  On the 70th anniversary of his death Place Norman Bethune was established near Concordia University in Montreal with a huge statue of Bethune on the square.  Hospitals have been named after him. 

He has been celebrated in Spain and China as well for his work.  The McCord Museum in Montreal has an exhibition on him this spring.  The National Film Board did a film on him years ago and a feature film Bethune: The Making of a Hero was made in 1990 staring Donald Sutherland as Bethune.  It was based on a novel by Ted Allen. 

Adrienne Clarkson has quite a task to add to the existing material on Bethune in libraries and online.  I will be one of the first in line for the book and some of the others in the series. 

Cover of new book on Dr. Norman Bethune. 

For further information on the series log on to http://www.extraordinarycanadians.com/ .For information on Bethune Google his name.  One of the most interesting sites is http://archives.cbc.ca/health/medicine/topics/1345/ which has 6 television clips and 8 audio clips covering his life.

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