ClassAction: Spanish history brought to life via Montreal 

Students learn about Norman Bethune’s contribution in the Spanish Civil War

By Karen Herland

David Rodriguez-Solás explains elements of Bethune’s legacy to students at the McCord Museum’s exhibit. Magnifying glass

David Rodriguez-Solás explains elements of Bethune’s legacy to students at the McCord Museum’s exhibit.

The connections between Montreal’s history, controversies in contemporary Spanish culture and Beaver Lake might seem convoluted at best. But students in David Rodriguez-Solás’ course, The History of Spanish Culture, spent an afternoon at the McCord Museum understanding how Norman Bethune is the link between these various threads.

Bethune, who died 70 years ago on Nov. 12, spent a year in Spain as one of
35 000 internationals who were drawn to fight fascism during the Spanish Civil War. Rodriguez-Solás used the McCord’s exhibit, Normand Bethune: Trail of Solidarity, to illustrate how many of the medical innovations Bethune brought to China were actually developed a year earlier, while he was in Spain.

The exhibit contains a number of images taken by Bethune’s friend and companion on the trip, Hazen Sise. Sise, a Montrealer who trained as an architect (and designed the Beaver Lake Pavillion in the 1950s), lacked Bethune’s medical training but he served in the civil war effort by driving ambulances.

It was during the year the two men spent in Spain that Bethune developed the concept of mobile hospitals, and blood transfusions, both critically important to saving the lives of those in battle.

Better known for his medical and humanitarian work in China, Bethune was also essential in helping refugees escape from Málaga in 1937. Rodriguez-Solás grew up near Málaga, but did not hear much of Bethune while in Spain. “He was just one of thousands who came to help,” said Rodriguez-Solás. “His work was really important, it’s a pity he’s not very well known.” Rodriguez-Solás spent some time teaching in the U.S. before joining the Department of Classics, Modern Languages and Linguistics this term.

In fact, one of the students in the class said that she had heard more about Bethune while studying in China than she ever had in Montreal, despite the fact that his statue sits in the centre of Quartier Concordia. Rodriguez-Solás asked the students to reflect on how the commemoration of history (or the absence of it) contributes to or modifies collective memory.

Rodriguez-Solás also used the exhibit to connect the material to contemporary Spain. The course looks at how history interacts with Spanish culture right now. Two years ago, Spanish parliament passed the Law of Historical Memory seeking to redress some of the losses incurred by victims of the civil war. This decision was controversial because of the potential to reopen 70-year-old wounds.


Concordia University