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  You are in: Home > Biography > Norman Bethune in Spain  

Norman Bethune in Spain
Commitment, Crisis, and Conspiracy

David Lethbridge

David Lethbridge is a college professor of psychology with BA and MA degrees from Concordia University in Montreal, and a PhD from the University of Regina. He began researching Bethune’s life in 1998, discovered an original 16mm copy of Bethune’s 1937 documentary film Heart of Spain, and has lectured on Bethune’s life across Canada. As well as his many scholarly and scientific publications, Prof. Lethbridge has authored Bethune: The Secret Police File and an article on Bethune’s role in cadaver blood transfusion in the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History.


Born to fanatical religious zealots, deeply wounded by an unloving mother and a weak father whom he hated, Norman Bethune struggled throughout his life to overcome deep emotional scars. Sexually inhibited, given to outbursts of near psychopathic rage, this wounded doctor healed himself through healing others.

In the mid-1930s, Bethune emerged as a renowned surgeon fighting the twin plagues of disease and fascism. When Franco launched his offensive, Bethune traveled quickly to Madrid, organized a mobile transfusion service and, often under fire, brought blood to the wounded at the front.

David Lethbridge presents the complex of Bethune’s unique activities and personality as they intersected with history: His engagement with medical, political, and military civil war players, and the Communist party; his cadaver blood transfusion work with the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist, Hermann Muller; the profound effect that the Malaga atrocity had on him, and the role it played in his attempt to build “children’s cities” outside war zones; his meeting with Graham Spry – a high-ranking functionary in the Canadian social democratic party, the CCF; the unraveling of Bethune’s romantic relationship with the Swedish journalist Kasja Rothman; the implications of his friendship with Henning Sorensen, a possibly secret member of the Communist Party of Canada, and the circumstances of the conspiracy that led to Bethune’s ejection from Spain.

The book concludes with Bethune’s political tour throughout North America raising funds and public awareness on behalf of the Spanish Republic.


A Rotten Childhood
Nothing He Would Not Do
Last Night Rose Low and Wild and Red

The Double Pyramid
Men of Iron, Men of Gold
The Frankenstein Project
Imperialism Prefers Fascism
The Butchers’ Revolt
Imperialist Betrayal
They Killed My Soul

The Plan
Based on Blood: A New Type of Human Relationship
I Would Not Be Anywhere Else
Slaughter of the Innocents
Every Minute is Beautiful
The Blood of the Dead
I Killed My Own Son
The Conspiracy
They Are In Me, They Have Changed Me

A Tumultuous Welcome
Sharply Raising the Question of Class Struggle
You See Now Why I Must Go
People Let Me Tell You, Now Is the Time to Wake Up
Will You Come?

A Dream of Himself


“Superbly researched, insightful, and extremely well-written, it is a significant contribution to Bethune scholarship”. Roderick Stewart, author of Bethune and The Mind of Norman Bethune

“In this ground-breaking new biography, David Lethbridge sets out to reveal ‘the Bethune whom we do not know.’ Although the revolutionary Canadian doctor is already the subject of five written biographies and three films, much about what propelled him through the troubled 1930s remains tantalizingly mysterious. One biographer has summed up the puzzle of Bethune by describing him as ‘arrogant in the service of humanity.’ Lethbridge cuts through the contradictions by approaching his subject from an entirely new perspective. Looking closely at Bethune’s childhood, Lethbridge brings the reader to a profound understanding of Bethune’s psyche. Keeping a sensitive finger on Bethune’s psychological pulse, Lethbridge brings the reader to a new appreciation of Bethune’s troubled and accomplished life. In Norman Bethune in Spain, we gain insight into Bethune’s attachment to children, to his unsatisfactory relationships with women, to his apparent conceit that was married to an intense devotion to the wounded. No less significant, the depth of detail Lethbridge unveils about the six months Bethune devoted to the anti-fascist cause in the Spanish Civil War leads the reader to a deep admiration for his immense contributions to the struggle there. Lethbridge not only corrects the historical record about Bethune, he carves out an entirely new understanding of the interior of a man of great complexity and ability. Lethbridge paints a revealing portrait of a ‘wounded doctor [who] healed himself through healing others.’ This is a novel assessment of a fascinating, brilliant man that has eluded previous biographers.” Larry Hannant, Editor, The Politics of Passion: Norman Bethune’s Writing and Art

“David Lethbridge’s solid scholarship and clear analysis adds particularly valuable insight into Bethune’s commitment to the Spanish cause and his complex family relationship.” The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, author of Norman Bethune
“Norman Bethune in Spain gives a compelling and thoroughly researched account of a key episode in the life of the legendary Canadian surgeon who achieved world fame “fighting the twin plagues of disease and fascism.” David Lethbridge grants Bethune’s work in Spain during its civil war the central place that it deserves. In the process, he shows that Bethune’s decision to go to Spain, the institution of his blood transfusion service there, and the way his Spanish adventures came to an end, were anything but accidental.” Sebastiaan Faber, Professor of Hispanic Studies, Oberlin College, and Chair, Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives

“By the end of his time in Spain, Bethune had fallen out with a number of the people with
whom he worked, especially the Spanish doctors at the Madrid transfusion centre. He also was
in dispute with the Spanish government by resisting the official policy to bring under central
control all remaining militias and independent medical services, such as Bethune’s clinics and
vehicles. In the end, the Spanish government and the Canadian Communist Party
manoeuvred him into returning to Canada, ostensibly to undertake propaganda and
fundraising for the Republic. Lethbridge carefully combs the evidence testing out which of
the various associates may have been responsible for forcing Bethune’s departure but the
picture he presents is not conclusive. Rather, it suggests that Bethune’s blood service was
caught up in the volatile and often poisonous political atmosphere surrounding the struggle
for centralization. Certainly, compromise and negotiation that the tensions and conflicts called
for, were not Bethune’s strong suit.

In his seven short months in Spain, including trips outside the country, Bethune
achieved a great deal. This study, by closely examining his activities and motivations during
this time, provides new insight into Bethune’s life and the wartime workings of the
Republican medical service. In face of the unflagging interest in Bethune and his work,
however, it is probably safe to say that this will not be the last word on this charismatic and
complex individual.”
Reviewed in the Bulletin of Spanish Studies (May 2015) by Judith Keene, University of Sydney


Publication Details

Hardback ISBN:
Paperback ISBN:
Page Extent / Format:
272 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Release Date:
March 2013
  Illustrated:   Yes
Hardback Price:
£65.00 / $74.95
Paperback Price:
£25.00 / $34.95


Published in association with the Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies

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