Bethune’s exceptional legacy 

By Karen Herland

Adrienne Clarkson offered a preview of her biography on Norman Bethune in the DeSève Cinema, here in conversation with Anne Lagacé Dowson. Magnifying glass

Adrienne Clarkson offered a preview of her biography on Norman Bethune in the DeSève Cinema, here in conversation with Anne Lagacé Dowson.

Although being launched officially this weekend at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival, Adrienne Clarkson addressed a packed DeSève Cinema last week to preview her new biography on Norman Bethune.

The venue was ideal, as President Judith Woodsworth said during her introductory remarks, “Norman Bethune embodies numerous values dear to Concordia and to the city of Montreal.”

Framed as part of a series of events hosted by various institutions and foundations under the umbrella of a year-long Homage to Norman Bethune, Clarkson underscored the connection by describing the newly restored statue central to Place Bethune as guarding the campus, in the heart of Quartier Concordia.

The former Governor General of Canada, Clarkson presented Bethune, and her experience researching his life, in an informal lecture followed a one-on-one interview with broadcast journalist Anne Lagacé Dowson. Clarkson pointed out she is the first woman to write about the man generally characterized as mercurial, macho, frequently drunk and “ruthlessly undomesticated.”

Clarkson sketched out his public life, which is familiar to many Canadians. Bethune was born in Ontario to a Presbyterian Minister, studied medicine there, and moved to Montreal in the 1920s. His connection to Montreal is celebrated, although he only lived here for eight years. “There is not a single statue in his honour in Toronto.”

Clarkson said Bethune’s Presbyterian background may have shaped him as “someone who served life” but it was his experiences in Montreal teaching art to underprivileged children, establishing a medical clinic in Verdun, and being stonewalled in attempts to build up a subsidized health care system that established him as a communist and paved the way for his future involvement in the Spanish Civil War, and eventually in China.

“A great person enters history at the moment it means something,” said Clarkson, adding that Bethune was usually ahead of the curve.

He was often considered abrasive as well. He was unpopular in many medical circles since he was critical of doctors’ self-interests. “He believed that medical ethics should not involve how doctors treat each other but how they treat patients.”

Over his career, he developed numerous surgical tools. Clarkson acknowledged that his contributions, medical, social and political, are often downplayed because of political embarrassment over his unwavering communism.

Yet it was his commitment to radical politics that earned him respect elsewhere. Clarkson said everyone she met in China, from the youngest to the most elderly, can recite excerpts from the essay Mao Zedong wrote about Bethune just after his death from blood poisoning (caused by a lack of protective equipment available while he was performing surgery in China). “What was dismissed as arrogance and stubbornness here was seen as determination and a will to survive in China,” said Clarkson.

Clarkson was similarly balanced about Bethune’s personal life. Although frequently characterized as a womanizer, she said he did not abuse power to seduce women. She also spoke of his unconsummated long-term love affair with painter Marion Dale Scott, the evidence of which she read in numerous letters between the two of them.

Clarkson’s book is one of a series about extraordinary Canadians being published by Penguin. The books have already generated buzz in the Canadian media. Clarkson acknowledged a long-standing fascination with Bethune’s life and work but joked it was “handy to live with the general editor of the series [John Ralston Saul]” in terms of her selection as author of this volume.

Amongst those present was former Concordia President Frederick Lowy, who conferred an honorary doctorate on Clarkson at a ceremony in 2004.


Concordia University