The Canadian Norman Bethune: A Pioneer of Humanitarian Medicine
Considered the pioneer of humanitarian medicine, Canadian Norman Bethune pioneered mobile blood transfusions: he saved the lives of thousands of people in the Spanish Civil War. And he is a hero in China, where he also did great work.
Norman Bethune (Ontario, Canada 1890 - Hebei, China, 1939) was a great surgeon in Canada, close to the Communist Party. When the seditious of Mola, Franco, and the rest of the coup perpetrators provoked the civil confrontation in Spain, he felt the need to come to Spain and help as a doctor. He arrived in Madrid as a volunteer on November 3, 1936, with a Ford van purchased in London, known as "La Rubia", and medical equipment bought in Paris. The trip was paid for by the Canadian Committee for Aid to Spanish Democracy.
Norman Bethune participated in the First World War as a medic, becoming an excellent thoracic surgeon who even designed an innovative surgical instrument for the treatment of tuberculosis. Moved by the poverty experienced in Canada in the 1930s, he practiced social medicine, caring for the most disadvantaged. The advance of fascism in Europe made him abandon his good social and economic position and move to Spain in 1936 to put his medical knowledge at the service of the Republic in the Spanish War against the "nationals".
Making it clear that he had not come to Spain to shed blood, but to give it, Bethune performed more than 700 transfusions in the 8 months he stayed in our country. In Madrid, where he created the Canadian Blood Transfusion Service, he set up the first blood bank in a house on Príncipe de Vergara Street with 15 rooms, organizing voluntary blood donations and requesting the collaboration of radio stations and the press. Solidarity was rewarded with wine.
The surgeon noticed that the blood bags sent to the wounded in hospitals were arriving late. He decided to change his method of work for a rather novel one: he would go to the war fronts with devices to give transfusions in the scenes of war, on the battlefronts. His medical approach surprised the medical services of the Republic. Dr. Bethune financed and organized the work, joining the medical services of the International Brigades, reaching Guadalajara, Valencia, Barcelona, and especially Malaga.
After the capture of Malaga by the rebel forces, there was a dreadful flight of Malagueños to Almeria. This is one of the key episodes of Bethune's stay in Spain. The doctor will refer to the event as "The crime of the Malaga-Almeria road". The Italian army, with the support of the Francoists, took the city within hours: they then intensely bombarded by land and sea the large column of civilians who were escaping by the only road that connected Malaga with Almeria, about 200 kilometers long. Bethune was in Barcelona when he received the news of the advance of the military rebels in Malaga.
In February 1937 he moved with his collaborators along the coast to Malaga, but he could not reach the city: he found an enormous column of more than one hundred thousand people, old people, women, and children, who were desperately fleeing from the city, in what was a savage attack against a defenseless civilian population. For three days, Bethune transported as many as he could in his ambulance on round trips to Almeria, making it easier for them to escape the terror provoked by the rebels.
The terrible experience he lived and suffered is recorded in his writings: "The truck stopped, I got out and stood in the middle of the road. Where were they coming from? Where were they going? What was happening? They looked at me timidly. They didn't have the strength to go on, but they were afraid to stop. They said the fascists were after them. Yes, Malaga had fallen. The guns had thundered. The houses were razed to the ground. The city had been hit hard and every person capable of walking had been thrown out on the road." His colleague Hazen Sise took it upon himself to photograph the dramatic exodus, one of the most terrible and brutal episodes perpetrated by the Francoists in the Spanish War.
Bethune's texts are heartbreaking: "Behind the bus a little girl with her finger in her mouth was moaning, crouching by the side of the road. I saw a militiaman reach out and take the girl on his back. Next to her, a peasant carried a woman on his shoulders as if she were a sack of potatoes." Next to the photograph, the testimony of Ana Pérez Rey, 9 years old in 1937: "When we arrived at the Torrox Lighthouse, the bombing of the ships began... they wounded my aunt and her mother, who was shot through the chest, but she did not die; my aunt still has shrapnel. Everyone was screaming and trying to find each other, but they gave a voice for the wounded to go to a car, and since my aunt and her mother were wounded, they put them in the car. And I was left alone and got lost."
Next to another of the photographs in the exhibition, is a frame with two texts. In the first, Norman Bethune writes: "Imagine four days of hiding in the mountains, pursued by the planes of the barbaric fascists, and four nights of walking in a compact group of men, women, children, mules, donkeys, and goats, trying to keep the families together, calling each other by name, looking for each other in the shadows.
In the second, Cristóbal Criado Moreno, 16 years old in 1937, says: "The air force bombed us on the Cuesta de los Caracolillos. There were cliffs and people either went to the mountains or the shore. My family was dispersed: I was next to the seawall. We heard the bombs whistling very close. When they stopped bombing I saw dead people everywhere. We tried to reunite as a family, but one of my sisters, the youngest, who was eight years old, was lost; the rest of us were reunited as we went forward, without my sister. After an hour she was with another family in a small cart, and I saw her... (at this moment the narrator bursts into tears)".
Half a year later Bethune returned to Canada, from where he went to China to help the wounded in the second Sino-Japanese war. Before leaving for the East, he financed the documentary "The Heart of Spain" and toured different Canadian cities to raise funds for the Government of the Republic, warning about the dangers of the rise of fascism. He also recruited volunteers for the "Spanish cause". The international Canadian battalion, the Mackenzie-Papineau, was the second-largest, after the French.