The enigmatic Dr Norman Bethune...
A new Bethune Biography has just been released, "Phoenix, The Life Of Norman Bethune" by Roderick and Sharon Stewart (McGill-Queen's University Press). It makes for a very good read although it's controversial with assertions of Bethune's narcissism and mental illness. This authoritative, well researched and heavily referenced Bio casts a shadow on Dr Bethume's reputation as a dedicated humanitarian and principled physician. For example, what sort of man would marry his wife twice, divorce her twice and even perform an abortion on her baby (while purportedly wanting a child of his own)?
Quoting from the book (page 375): "Bethune's life exhibits recurrent cycles of achievement and self-destruction- the pattern of the phoenix. He was a born crusader, and the evangelic spirit created by his Christian upbringing later informed his developing social consciousness and his ultimate faith in communism. He was driven throughout his life to act as a saviour, not just a doctor but in his personal relationships and in his developing social commitment. His finest trait was the way he identified with the suffering, the wounded and the helpless...The difficult aspects of his character, his temper and his mood swings, were complicated for much of his life by heavy drinking....Whether his abuse of alcohol was a symptom of a borderline mood or personality disorder or was in itself the cause of his instability is impossible to say. He offended many people throughout his life and there is little doubt that had he been able to exercise tact and diplomacy, he might have achieved more than he did. But it was not in his fiery nature to do so. His instinct was to pursue his objectives at all costs and without compromise, and time and time again this caused him to crash and burn. Yet one of the most heroic aspects of his personality was his ability to recreate himself after each disaster and climb again."
While in China I was in awe of Dr Bethune's accomplishments and self sacrifice as presented to me in the various institutions and museums we visited. I read the book on the flight back home. It was a real page turner offering insight to his very troubled personal life. Does it diminish his accomplishments? No, but it takes him off the mythic pedestal, makes him out to be more of a tragic person.