'Idolized by millions of Chinese for his selfless devotion to others, in Canada he ranks far below pop singers and a sports commentator in "greatness."'

The story of how an irascible doctor from Gravenhurst, Ontario, ended up as one of the greatest heroes of Mao's China is one of the most remarkable in Canadian history.

Norman Bethune's family tree dates back to the time of William the Conqueror and includes several generations of surgeons on Scotland's Isle of Skye. His great-great grandfather was imprisoned during the American Revolution for his loyalty to Britain and when he was released, he fled to Canada. Norman's wanderlust may have been inherited from his father Malcolm who tried his hand at sheep farming in Australia and orange growing in Hawaii, where he met and married a fervent missionary, Elizabeth Ann Goodwin. She converted her husband. He became a pastor and took his first appointment in Gravenhurst, where Norman was born in 1890.

Norman grew up with the sense that the less fortunate should be helped and he also seems to have inherited some of his ancestors' cantankerous nature. He worked as a lumberjack and taught at a Frontier College before enlisting in an ambulance corps in September 1914. He was injured collecting the wounded near Ypres and was invalided home. "The slaughter has begun to appall me," he wrote, "I see little of war's glory."

Bethune got his medical degree in 1916 and after the war he settled in Detroit, ministering to the poor. He rebuked his medical colleagues who charged huge sums for treating the wealthy but found no time to treat the poor. He himself was diagnosed with tuberculosis, entered a sanitarium (where he broke all the rules) and underwent a controversial operation, which proved a success.

In April 1928 Bethune began a new career in Montreal treating tuberculosis. He researched, experimented and when he found surgical instruments inadequate, he invented new ones.

On October 24, 1936 Bethune boarded a ship for Spain to support the fight against the fascists. There he purchased an ambulance and organized the world's first mobile blood transfusion unit, saving many lives. While he received a hero's greeting on his return to Canada, he knew that his career was over after he publicly declared that he was a member of the Communist Party.

Bethune left for war-torn China in January 1938. He headed for Chin Kang K'u, in the remote Shansi province, but since the railway line was cut by the Japanese, the trip took four months. He travelled third class with the soldiers and refugees, slept on rice bags and treated civilians and soldiers along the way. In March he finally reached Yan'an, where the Chinese congratulated him for returning from the land of the dead. There in a cave lit by a single candle, he met Mao Tse-tung.

Norman Bethune's mobile medical team in China included 18 members. The white horse, captured from the Japanese, was a gift.

Bethune organized the building of a hospital in Sung-yen K'oun but it was captured by the Japanese only three weeks later. He hastily put together a mobile unit and headed for the front. Stories of how he gave away his clothes to the wounded, how he offered his own blood for transfusions, and how he once rode 25 kilometres to look after a single soldier spread throughout China.

The rigorous life took its toll even on Bethune's indomitable spirit. He spoke only a few words of Chinese and felt very lonely. "Are books still being written?" he wrote to a friend in Canada, "Is music still played? Do you dance, drink beer, look at pictures?"

Bethune's colleagues always complained that "He doesn't fit in here." China transformed him. "It is true that I am tired," he wrote one day after performing ten operations, "but I don't think that I have been so happy for a long time... I am treated like a kingly comrade, with every kindness imaginable."

Bethune planned to leave China for 3 or 4 months but he had too much to do before he left. He led his team along the icy tracks to the foot of the Mo-t'ien Mountains. There he cut his finger during an operation. Infection set in and he died of blood poisoning on November 12, 1939 in the tiny village of Huanshih K'ou. The Chinese carried his body through the mountains for four days and laid him in state in Chu-ch'eng, where 10 000 paid their respects.

Bethune's eulogy by Mao Zedong was memorized by millions of Chinese students. "Comrade Bethune's spirit, his utter devotion to others without any thought of self was shown in his great sense of responsibility in his work and his great warm-heartedness towards all the people." While every school child in China knew of Bethune, few in Canada even knew of his passing. Because of his politics he was virtually ignored. Despite recent biographies, films and documentaries, Bethune still has not found his rightful place in the hearts and identity of Canadians. The idea that the names of Mike Myers, Stompin' Tom Conners and Don Cherry could appear above his on any list of the "Greatest Canadians," is a sad commentary either on the values of our popular culture or on the poor state of our historical awareness.