By BERNIE BELLAN
As part of the program looking at the history of Jewish physicians in Manitoba, well-known novelist Eva Wiseman gave a fascinating presentation on the quota system that was introduced by the former dean of the University of Manitoba medical school, Alvin Mathers, in 1932, and which was kept in place until 1945.
Wiseman, who has been chosen to write the history of Jewish physicians in Manitoba, came equipped with some formidable research materials, including charts showing how many Jewish students had been admitted to the medical school here prior to 1932 and the drastic reduction that followed the introduction of quotas in 1932 (although a formal quota was not introduced until 1933).
Wiseman began her talk by noting that Jews had been excluded from many areas of professional practice before 1932. “There were no Jewish judges or school principals” and it was “very difficult to get internships” in hospitals even though there were many Jewish graduates of the medical school.
“If you were an applicant (to medical school) you had to write your racial origin, your religion, and the occupation of your parents,” Wiseman noted.
Still, medicine had long been an area in which Jews had been welcomed, even at times when they were excluded from so many other occupations, in both the Christian and Muslim worlds.
Formal restrictions began in 1933 when, Wiseman explained, “Dean Mathers approached a rabbi at the Shaarey Zedek, Rabbi Solomon Frank, and said to him and the congregation that ‘if the Jews agree not to storm the medical school, he will guarantee a place for 10 Jewish students in every first year medical school class’.
“This suggestion was accepted by Rabbi Frank and his confreres. It’s kind of uncomfortable to contemplate that the quota system – the numerus clausus (“closed number” in Latin) was agreed to by the Jewish community of Manitoba. However, anti-Semitism in the 1930s was so rife that the offer Dean Mathers made might have seemed very generous to him. During this era almost all medical schools in Canada and the United States discriminated against Jewish students.”
“It didn’t take long for Dean Mathers to break his word,” Wiseman noted, “and accept less than 10 students. From 1937 onward there were on average only five Jewish students” accepted into each first year medical school class.
“Everybody knew about the numerus clausus, but no one knew what to do about it. There was nothing in writing.”
Wiseman recounted a conversation she had with Dr. Leon Rubin, who graduated from Medicine in 1945. He told her that Jewish students just kept quiet.
“It wasn’t like today when you can speak to the media when something is wrong,” Dr. Rubin told her. “In those days you just kept quiet and tried to get your degree. When you were a medical student and anti-Semitism was rife, you just minded your own business.”
Wiseman also told the story of Sam Bellan (my late uncle), who applied to enter medical school during the 1930s. Mathers “happened to be the captain of the rifle squad reserve unit which young Sam Bellan joined. Sam happened also to be an outstanding marksman. Dr. Mathers said to him, ‘Bellan, I’ll let you in – even though you’re a Jew.’ ”
“When questioned later on whether his marksmanship was the reason he was accepted into medical school, Dr. Bellan chuckled and said, ‘It sure didn’t hurt!’”
The story of Monty Halparin (a.k.a. Monty Hall) is also typical of Jewish students of that era. “An outstanding student, Monty applied to medical school twice” (and was rejected both times).
Finally, Wiseman told the audience, in 1943 a group of young Zionist students in an organization known as “Avukah” (torch in Hebrew) formed a fact-finding committee. “The aim of this committee was to prove that there was a numerus clausus – a quota system – that students were accepted to the medical school on the basis of race, and not merit, and to do away with it.”
The late Dr. Percy Barsky was the first president of the Avukah fact-finding committee. Unfortunately, he didn’t get very far in his investigation, Wiseman said.
“People were afraid to come forward. Medical students were afraid of Dean Mathers, interns were afraid for their positions, and Jewish doctors were afraid of being blacklisted.”
“In 1943 a young Jewish man in Toronto named Shlomo Mitchell (later Shlomo Ben Adam) graduated with a degree in mathematics and was offered a job at the University of Manitoba. He became a lecturer there. The Avukah fact-finding committee asked Shlomo to become its president and he accepted.
“He and the members of his committee recorded the names and marks of over 1500 students who graduated from the University of Manitoba medical school from 1926-1943. The names and marks of unsuccessful applicants were also recorded; 50 such students gave Mitchell their data. He also recorded the names and marks of students who failed and were still admitted to medical school.
“The results of the investigation were shocking, but not unexpected.”
Wiseman went on to detail how students from preferred groups, i.e. Anglo Saxons, French Canadians, and Icelanders, were all able to obtain entry into the medical school with much lower qualifications than students from such other groups as Jews and Eastern Europeans.
In time the Avukah committee decided to make an appearance before a committee of the Manitoba Legislature. Respected lawyer Hyman Sokolov represented them; however, neither B’nai Brith nor the Canadian Jewish Congress supported Avukah’s pressing forward. According to Wiseman, “they thought Avukah had no chance.”
In 1945, Sokolov appeared before the Education Committee of the Legislature and argued that “the University of Manitoba couldn’t discriminate against any student because the university was funded by public taxes.”
Although Dean Mathers was present for Sokolov’s testimony, he still continued to insist that a quota system was necessary, otherwise the “university would become Jewish.” Also present at the committee hearings though was the Chair of the university’s Board of Governors, Judge Andrew Dysart.
The Board of Governors voted to end all discriminatory practices in accepting students into the medical school. From that point on acceptance into the school was to be based entirely on merit.
In the fall of 1945 36% of the incoming first year medical school class was Jewish.