Book Review: Norman Bethune in Spain

September 15, 2013


This article  appeared in the 35th issue of the newsletter of the International Brigade Memorial Trust and is reprinted here with the IBMT’s permission.

Whilst much has been written about remarkable Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune, previous works have centred on Bethune’s early medical successes at home in his native Canada and his heroic achievements later as a military medical officer in China. As its title suggests, “Norman Bethune in Spain” focuses uniquely on Bethune’s accomplishments in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. In this exciting and compassionate new account, David Lethbridge reveals hitherto unfamiliar aspects of Bethune’s life and work that afford us new and valuable insights into the brilliant but volatile, erratic and sometimes self-destructive behaviour of this great man – the man behind the legendary hero that he was later to become.

Eminent thoracic surgeon and committed communist, Norman Bethune challenged the Canadian medical establishment and provoked the antagonism of his peers by proposing radical reforms of the health services and advocating free access to medical care for those who could not afford it. When civil war erupted in Spain in the summer of 1936, it soon became clear that the Republic would be unable to cope with the vast number of wounded, both military and civilian, and the Spanish government made a worldwide plea for help. Norman Bethune was one of those who responded to that call. He was convinced of the imperious need to confront fascism in Spain and acutely aware that the outcome would have lasting repercussions for the future of Europe and America.

At the invitation of the Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, Bethune went out to Spain at the end of October 1936, initially with the responsibility of coordinating medical aid sent from Canada to the Republic. However, the visionary surgeon soon had other plans in mind. With funds from the CASD, he set about creating a blood transfusion service in Madrid, developing it into what would become known as the Servicio Hispano-Canadiense de Transfusión de

Whilst the pioneering mobile blood transfusion service is recognised as Bethune’s single greatest achievement in Spain, Lethbridge also reveals the extent to which Bethune and his team contributed to the scientific advancement of blood transfusion and to the development of techniques for the extraction, storage and preservation of blood, including experimental work on the use of blood from human cadavers.

In exploring the nature of Bethune’s relationships with his colleagues at the Blood Transfusion Institute, and in particular with secret Party member, Henning Sorensen, Lethbridge unravels the details of the conspiracy that led to Bethune’s eventual removal from Spain – a conspiracy based largely on groundless suspicions and personal jealousies, motivated to some extent by Bethune’s romantic involvement with Swedish journalist Kasja Rothman.

The singular events described in this particular episode of Norman Bethune’s life are brought sharply into focus by the author, within the coherent framework of their wider historical and political context, providing not only a piece of groundbreaking historical research but also a compelling read.
Linda Palfreeman is the author of “¡Salud! British Volunteers in the Republican Medical Service during the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939” (Sussex Academic Press, Eastbourne, 2012). Her latest book, “Aristocrats, Adventurers and Ambulances: British Ambulance Units in the Spanish Civil War” is scheduled to be published later this year.