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Dr. Bethune Biography

Written by Donalee Moulton-Barrett

From the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Vol 128; April 15, 1983

Drew Bethune, the youngest son of Dr. Gordon Wallace Bethune, was on a bus tour of the Isle of Mull in Scotland when the bus driver stopped to show the tourists a very special cairn - a gravestone monument to one of the doctoring Bethunes. The Bethunes, said the bus driver proudly, have been doctors for 600 years. Actually that's not true. They've been doctors since the early 11th century when the first Bethune was a private physician to a French duke. Thus it's understandable when Gordon Bethune says his decision to enter medical school wasn't a decision at all. It was a fact of life.

Dr. Bethune was born in Toronto in 1919 but spent most of his childhood in the picturesque Cape Breton town of Baddeck. In 1936 he enrolled at Acadia University in Wolfville, and emerged three years later with his BSc degree. That same year he moved to Halifax and the Dalhousie University School of Medicine.

In 1943 he graduated as a licensed physician and the Bethune tradition lived on. After a three-year stint with the Canadian Armed Forces overseas, Dr. Bethune returned to Canada and received his surgical training at the Victoria General (VG) Hospital in Halifax, where he was for many years Chief of Surgery, C Service.

In 1950 he joined Dalhousie University's Department of Surgery and received his first appointment to the surgical staff of the VG. That year he also became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. In 1964 Dr. Bethune joined the staff of Dalhousie University full time. Three years later, in 1967, he was appointed Head of the Department of Surgery at Dalhousie and the Victoria General Hospital. It was a very good year. He retired in February of 1983.

Under his leadership the Surgery Department of the VG grew from a scattered, diffuse handful of surgeons, to a cohesive, tightly knit unit of 60. During his tenure he saw to it that major advances were made in the VG's department of surgery. Divisions of pediatric surgery, orthopaedic surgery, cardiovascular surgery, plastic surgery and general surgery were created, resulting in a noticeable improvement in patient care. Organ transplants became a specialty of the hospital and today the VG does more open heart surgery than any other hospital in Canada.

Aside from teaching and surgery, Dr. Bethune was a member and examiner of the Council of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, a member of the committee on general surgery of the Royal College and a founding member of the Canadian Oncology Society. He also serves as a member on the editorial board of The Canadian Journal of Surgery and has served as chairman of the credentials committee for Nova Scotia of the American College of Surgeons as well as chairman of the credentials committee of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. He was a member of the first Council of the Canadian Association of General Surgery.

Retirement hasn't brought any more leisure time to Dr. Bethune's hectic schedule. "I thought I would have a lot more spare time but I still seem to be as busy as I used to be, although there's less tension," says Dr. Bethune, who plans a tour of major centres like Boston, Pittsburgh, Italy, France and England where innovative techniques in treating breast disease and breast cancer - Dr. Bethune's specialty - are being tested. When he gets back to Halifax it will be sailing season and Dr. Bethune, an avid racer and founder of the Bluenose Offshore Racing Circuit 12 years ago, will be found braving the Atlantic with his wife of 40 years, Helen, and their two sons, Graeme, a family physician, and Drew, a surgeon.

Dr. Steve Norvell, Associate Professor of Surgery at Dalhousie, summed up Dr. Bethune's accomplishments best when he said during a farewell retirement dinner to honour Dr. Bethune: "We are confident that historians reviewing the department will look on his period of leadership as that time when the most major advances within the department occurred. He will undoubtedly be described as a wise, patient and dedicated leader of a complex department. 'The Bethune Years' have concentrated on the development of patient care and teaching, and clear success has been achieved in both these areas." His ancestors would be proud!