A family on the frontlines - celebrating Norman Bethune

Blog post by Gautham Krishnaraj, Youth Advisory Committee member.

Over 150 years ago, the Red Cross  Red Crescent Movement was born in the wake of the Battle of Solferino in 1859. Movement founder Henry Dunant was so moved by the immense suffering he saw that he called upon local villagers to come to the aid of the wounded. Among those who responded to the call were the Women of Castiglione, countless European medical professionals and Norman Bethune - a Canadian surgeon from Ontario. Dunant himself spoke of Bethune in A Memory of Solferino, recognizing him by name as “Norman Bettun”.

Nearly a century later, Bethune’s grandson - also named Norman - would follow in his grandfather’s footsteps, playing a critical role in the 1938 Sino (Chinese)-Japanese War. The younger Bethune was an established surgeon, having invented more than a dozen surgical devices, including the Bethune Rib Shears which are used to this day. During the 1936 Spanish Civil War, Bethune organized one of the first mobile blood transfusion services. He later travelled to China with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to lead a Canadian-American medical team during the Sino-Japanese War. He wore his Red Cross badge with pride, performing surgeries on the frontline to casualties on both sides of the conflict, as countless Red Cross surgeons continue to do to this day.

Bethune’s service to the Red Cross in China has had historic recognition, and he is often seen as a great connector of Canada and China. The highest medical honour in China is named the Norman Bethune Medal; there are countless schools, university departments, and medical colleges named after him in both countries; and he is one of the few Westerners represented by a statue in China. Bethune is remembered within the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement as a leader in action and in thought, and commemorated in many ways. The Norman Bethune International Delegate Program was established in 2013 by the Canadian Red Cross and Chinese Red Cross, building on the legacy of Bethune to help build the capacity of the Chinese Red Cross.

These accolades speak to the incredible value of his contributions, and his unwavering dedication to the values and morals of the Red Cross Movement, exemplified by his grandfather all those years ago.

“Today, we’re facing several Solferinos”

In late May, an event was held in Solferino, Italy to celebrate the lives of the younger Norman Bethune and Red Cross Movement founder Henry Dunant as part of an annual gathering at Solferino that honours the founding of the Red Cross.

The story of the younger Bethune and his contributions to the Red Cross is of course linked to that of his grandfather. Sara John Fowler, Canadian Red Cross Past-Chair of the Board of Directors and current member of International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) Governing Board from the Americas region, said at the event that it is this “unique and special story that has enshrined Norman Bethune as a symbol of the Red Cross and has brought us at the Canadian Red Cross closer to [...] our sister colleagues at the Chinese Red Cross.” With representatives from the Chinese, Canadian and Italian Red Cross Societies coming together, the event served as an important commemoration of a man who bridged continents in service of humanity.

In his remarks at the event, IFRC President Francisco Rocca noted that “today, we we’re facing several Solferinos.” Rocca’s words doubled as a call to action - to remember leaders like Norman Bethune, and the ideals they stood for. In a time of “several Solferinos” – crises around the world where people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance – these ideals are more important than ever. We must look beyond our borders with compassion and humanity, just as Norman Bethune did.

Gautham is a PhD Health Policy student at McMaster University, conducting his research as part of the Humanitarian Health Ethics (HHE) Research Group. He is the Director of Training Programs at HumanitarianU, where he designs and facilitates large-scale humanitarian disaster simulations for early career professionals. He has worked in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia, and has led various high-level youth delegations to the United Nations and OECD.
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