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Dr. Norman Bethune, table tennis and Sault Ste. Marie

A long family history leads to a complicated legacy for a doctor with Sault ties who was recognized as a national historic figure

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

When the Chinese table tennis team came to this country on an exhibition tour in 1972, there was one place that they had to see – the birthplace of Dr. Norman Bethune in Gravenhurst.

Their interest in a doctor most Canadians at the time would not have even heard of stems from his recognition in China as a hero for providing his medical expertise during an invasion by Japan. He died in China on Nov. 12, 1939, after cutting himself during surgery and contracting septicemia.

Mao Zedong, the Communist leader who founded the People’s Republic of China wrote a eulogy for Dr. Bethune speaking of his “utter devotion to others without any thought of self,” and decades of China’s children were required to memorize the words.

Norman Bethune also played an important role in the Spanish Civil War. He arrived in Spain to provide medical aid for the Republicans. He quickly developed a mobile blood transfusion service which was instrumental in sparing many lives and was a pivotal development in military medical history and would prove extremely beneficial during WWII.

In 1935, Dr. Bethune joined the Communist Party of Canada. This decision would prove to be quite controversial as the party was officially banned in Canada in 1940.

Due to his political views, Dr. Norman Bethune went unrecognized in Canada until after Canada and China commenced diplomatic connections in 1971. His birthplace in Gravenhurst is now a national historic site.

Norman Bethune was once a resident of the Sault and completed a year of high school here.

His father, Malcolm, was a Presbyterian Minister at St. Andrew’s Church on Wellington Street. The 1905/06 Sault Ste. Marie Directory lists the family as residing on Woodward Avenue.

This was a time before house numbers so their home is listed as being on the west side of Woodward Avenue, two houses north of Queen Street. The family also stayed briefly in Blind River and Echo Bay.

In addition, a young Norman Bethune also made an appearance in the Sault Star on July 14, 1904, when his marks for passing the high school entrance examinations were published.

Although he only lived here for a short time, his family has deep roots in the region. His ancestral story could easily have served as the historical basis for the popular television series Outlander, combined with a chapter from a school textbook chronicling the fur trade.

Norman Bethune’s 3rd great-grandfather was Angus of Colbost. He was a Jacobite in Scotland fighting for Bonnie Prince Charlie.

He was severely wounded and thought to be dead at the battle of Culloden, but managed to survive and escape capture by finding refuge on the Isle of Skye. Angus’s Scottish ancestors included five generations of doctors, so Norman was definitely not the first doctor in the family.

Angus’s son John obtained his education at the University of Aberdeen and was ordained as a minister, but the Highland Clearances soon drove him to leave Scotland for the New World. He settled in North Carolina on a plantation right before the American Revolutionary War.

When the war began the Scottish settlers started their own regiment called the Royal Highland Emigrants in service to the Crown with John Bethune as their chaplain. When they were defeated in battle the regiment ended up in military prison.

His British loyalty not only led to his imprisonment and loss of everything he owned but also led the family to Canada where the regiment reorganized.

After his service, John Bethune settled in Montreal and helped to found the St. Gabriel Street Congregation.

This Presbyterian congregation (which is considered the mother church of Presbyterianism in Canada) was composed mainly of uprooted Scottish Highlanders, and early contribution lists contain the names of some famous fur traders such as Alexander Henry (the elder) and Alexander MacKenzie.

They would both become long-standing friends of John Bethune. His family possessed one other interesting tie to the early fur trade – Jean Etienne Wadden (the father of his wife Veronique) was one of the original sixteen partners of the North West Company. He would lead his grandson Angus Bethune into the fur trade.

Angus would eventually become Chief Factor at Moose Factory and Albany, and most importantly for our region, he was sent to manage the new Hudson’s Bay Trading Post at Sault Ste. Marie.

He lived with his family at Michipicoten as the Chief Factor from 1832 to 1836. His wife Louisa is buried there. According to local historian Johanna Rowe in her book Wawa’s Heritage Doors – Portals to Our Past, Louisa was Angus’s country wife. She was the daughter of an Indigenous woman and Roderick MacKenzie, a fur trader.

Louisa was known as “Miss Green Blanket” and her son with Angus, named Norman, would go on to found the Upper Canada College of Medicine in Toronto, and be grandfather to Dr. Norman Bethune who would one day be inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.

Interestingly, Norman may not have been the first Bethune to journey to China either, his great grandfather Angus (the fur trader) reportedly made a trip to the ports of Macau and Canton.

With all of these ancestral connections to military service, medicine, and lives of adventure, it may be no surprise that Dr. Norman Bethune would also be drawn to an adventurous existence. During his life, he moved frequently as a child, attended medical school, worked in a lumber camp in Northern Ontario and taught workers in the evening, and served in WWI as a stretcher bearer until he was wounded in Ypres.

He also served in the Navy as a surgeon aboard an aircraft carrier, married and divorced the same woman twice, almost died of tuberculosis, became a thoracic surgeon and invented new surgical techniques and tools (some of which are still in use), was an early and vocal proponent of universal health care, and of course, served in the Spanish Civil War and assisted the Chinese in the war against Japan.

Bethune was a controversial figure, and when he returned to the Sault for a speaking engagement at the Technical School on July 13, 1937, trying to raise funds for the war effort in Spain, he made waves.

He appeared to a near-capacity crowd in the auditorium and gave his eyewitness account of what was going on in Spain and expressed his belief that action should be taken now to control fascism before it could spread to Canada.

This was prescient, as the second world war would follow in only a few short years and the Spanish Civil War has been described by some as a dress rehearsal for WWII. Dr. Bethune also implied that the Canadian press was not telling the whole truth about what was happening in the country.

His appearance also did not start well – he was introduced as “a man who was lured to Spain by adventure.”

He immediately retorted that this statement was incorrect, “I did not go to Spain because of an adventurous urge but because of a very definite principle involved in the conflict there.”

Dr. Bethune then went on to irritate many in the crowd who were businessmen and members of the Rotary Club by stating that, “because the Premier of Ontario, Mitchell Hepburn had used military police forces against the worker’s sacred right to strike – fascism is raising its head in Ontario.”

The Secretary of the Rotary Club made a note in the meeting’s minutes that, “Dr. Bethune was guest speaker and his talk bordered on Communism.”

Dr. Bethune died fairly young at the age of 49. He may now be considered a national historic figure for his stunning innovations in surgery and on the battlefront, but for several decades Dr. Bethune’s contentious political views overshadowed his achievements, and even today, he has left a complicated legacy in his wake.

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at and look for more Remember This? columns here

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