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(l-r): Drs. Richard Boroditsky, Neil Margolis, & Manuel Matas

The Jewish Heritage Centre held another in a series of programs looking back at a century of Manitoba Jewish physicians on Thursday, May 17, at the Berney Theatre.

Once again, the theatre was filled to overflowing. If nothing else, it proves the adage that, if you want to get a good crowd out to an event, promise someone you’re going to talk about them. This time, it was Jewish pediatricians, psychiatrists, and obstetrician/gynecologists who were discussed.
As in the other programs in this series – the evening was a combination of history, medicine, and levity. If nothing else, the doctors who presented this particular evening managed to touch all three bases. They recited the names of all Jewish physicians who had ever been involved in each of the respective specialties mentioned; they told some very interesting, often amusing anecdotes about many of those same physicians; and they engaged in a lively roundtable discussion pondering some fairly profound questions just why it is that so many Jews had gone into medicine – and, in particular, psychiatry and obstetrics/gynecology over the years. (But not so much any more it would seem of late, although one member of the audience challenged that notion.)

The first presenter was Dr. Neil Margolis, talking about Jewish pediatricians. By my count, he listed 33 Jewish pediatricians who have practiced in Manitoba, along with three department heads of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Manitoba.
Margolis talked at length about Dr. Harry Medovy, who was the first Jewish department head (1954-70) in the faculty. Known as “Hurricane Harry” – he was always in a hurry, Margolis explained, Medovy made many contributions to pediatrics in Manitoba, Margolis noted.
He led campaigns to add Vitamins C and D to milk; campaigned against smoking; arranged to have rural residents stop drinking from well water; and played a major role in the polio vaccination program.
Another notable department head has been Dr. Cheryl Rockman-Greenberg (2004-14), who just recently was given the Order of Manitoba. Rockman-Greenberg’s contributions in the areas of metabolic and genetic research are renowned.
Margolis also mentioned Dr. Percy Barsky, among others, for his contribution to the field of pediatrics – and for the key role he played in having the quota on Jewish doctors lifted in the 1940s.
One amusing story Margolis told was of a time – many years ago apparently, when a five-year-old girl was in his office to receive an immunization. Margolis said that the girl “was very upset” over getting that needle and told him “my father is a lawyer and he’s going to sue you.” Margolis noted that girl – now grown up, was in the audience that night. (He never did disclose her name. Is there a statute of limitations on suing a doctor for giving a needle, I wonder?)

Next up was Dr. Manuel Matas talking about Jewish psychiatrists. He began his talk by referring to the pejorative terms that used to be given to facilities where individuals with mental health issues were taken.  “Insane asylum” was the most commonly used term, although we all know other names as well.  In Manitoba, it was common for someone to say to someone, “I’m going to send you to Selkirk,” as a warning that needed no further elaboration.
While the Manitoba Medical College was established in 1883, Matas noted, it was not until 1954 that a Department of Psychiatry was formed. The first Jewish psychiatrist in Manitoba was Dr. John Matas, who also started the first psychiatric unit in a general hospital (St. Boniface).
Other notable psychiatrists Matas singled out for particular praise included: Dr. Harry Prosen (first Jewish head of the Department of Psychiatry in the Faculty of Medicine, 1975-87); Dr. Bill Bebchuk (second Jewish department head); Dr. Phil Katz – “a giant in his field” according to Matas (child and adolescent psychiatry); Dr. Harvey Chochinov (renowned palliative care expert); Dr. Murray Stein (expert in anxiety disorders); Dr. Will Fleisher (child & adolescent psychiatry); Dr. Fred Shane (forensic psychiatry); Dr. Michael Eleff (director of postgraduate education in psychiatry); Dr. Stan Yaren (program director, forensic psychiatry at Health Science Centre); and Dr. Mark Prober (director of faculty counseling services).
Manuel Matas spoke of the stigma attached to mental health issues. He referred to Prince Harry as one individual who has come forward to discuss his own trauma aa a result of having lost his mother – Princess Diana, when he was only 12.
“Harry wasn’t allowed to talk about her. He was on the verge of a complete breakdown until William told him to go for counseling,” Matas noted. Since then, he’s played a key role in bringing awareness of mental health issues to public attention.
Matas also referred to the typical stereotyping of psychiatrists in books, television and movies. He cited several instances of caricatures of psychiatrists, the most notorious being Hannibal Lechter.
As is the custom at these events, the names of all Jewish physicians in the specialty that is being discussed that evening were projected on to the screen. Matas produced one especially fascinating slide showing how many Jewish psychiatrist siblings  there have been in Manitoba over the years: Would you believe eight pairs of siblings have been in the profession?  By my count there were 25 other names shown on the screen, by the way.

The final presenter for the evening was Dr. Richard Boroditsky, talking about Ob/Gyn. Before launching into a recitation of Manitoba Jews who have been engaged in that particular practice, Boroditsky paid tribute to a famous Jewish doctor by the name of Ignaz Semmelweiss who lived in the 19th century and who, in Boroditsky’s description, saved more lives than any other doctor in history with three simple words: “Wash your hands.”
When Semmelweiss began practicing in Vienna, he was horrified to observe that the incidence of mortality among women giving birth in hospitals was three times higher than among women who used midwives, as a result of the prevalence of sepsis setting in after doctors had delivered their babies. Scorned by his fellow practitioners, Semmelweiss actually ended his days in a Vienna insane asylum, where he was beaten by guards and died from his wounds. (A fascinating aside to what had already been a very interesting evening)
Looking back over the history of Jewish Ob/Gyn doctors, Boroditsky cited a few for special attention: Dr. Sophie Paulin, who was  the first female Jewish doctor in Manitoba; Dr. Sol Kobrinsky – the first Jewish lecturer in Ob/Gyn; Dr. Max Rady (born Radishkevitch); Dr. Mindell (Cherniack) Sheps who, although not an Ob/Gyn, made a huge contribution to birth control here and in Saskatchewan; and Dr. Sam Kobrinsky.
Boroditsky also referred to the founders of the Mall Medical Clinic and the several members of that group who were Ob/Gyn doctors, including Dr. Ruvin Lyons, Dr. Michael Bruser, Dr. Leon Rubin, Dr. Phil Barnes, and Dr. Abe Earn.
He told one particularly amusing story about Ruvin Lyons who, Boroditsky said, “delivered most of the Jewish babies in the 1950s and 60s.”
Apparently Dr. Lyons was legendary for being able to always foretell the sex of a baby before it was born. He would say, for instance, “you’re going to have a boy,” to the parents-to-be, “but on the chart he would write ‘girl’,”Boroditsky explained. That way, after the baby was born and the parents would say he had told them they would have a boy –and they ended up having a girl, he would come back to them with the chart and say: “No, look, I wrote on the chart: ‘girl’.”
Other leading Ob/Gyn doctors mentioned by Boroditsky included Dr. Howard Karasick, who was the first Ob/Gyn to practice out of the Winnipeg Clinic; Dr. Mark Wall, who headed to California and became very successful there; and Dr. Jack Fainman who was shot by an anti-abortion vigilante in 1977 and was forced, as a result, into early retirement at age 66.
Others in the field today include Richard’s son Michael, Dr. Michael Bass, and Dr. Robyn Gertenstein, (who became the first female Ob/Gyn here since 1921). Others include: Dr. Alon Altman (from Israel, specializing in gynecologic oncology), Dr. Carey Palatnick, Dr. Corrine Paterson (Hejer), Dr. Jane Gilbert (Permut) (who said to Boroditsky: “You delivered me.”); Dr. Heather Diamond (Peikoff); and two doctors who came here from Argentina (and had to go through the grueling process of being  recredentialed: Dr. Guido Katz, and Dr. Vivian Schutt.
Following Boroditsky’s presentation, the question and answer session proved very lively. One questioner wondered “Is it the nature of being Jewish or is there something about Winnipeg that’s contributed to the success of so many Jewish physicians who have come from here?”
Richard Boroditsky suggested: “We’ve all been brought up to be caring, but the suffering that so many went through contributed to it” (so many Jews becoming doctors).
Dr. Daniel Klass though, speaking from the audience, observed that “the same things went on in Vancouver and Toronto.”
Someone else chimed in, “Immigrants preached one thing: ‘education’.”
Abe Anhang said he was going to ask the question that surely everyone else was wondering: “How come so many Jewish psychiatrists?”
Manuel Matas answered that he had come prepared for that question. He said he had looked up the figures and out of the 149 practicing psychiatrists in Manitoba, only 32 are Jewish (roughly 20%). The same percentage applied in 1968, he said.
“One reason it seems that there are a lot of Jewish psychiatrists is because many of the Jewish psychiatrists are in teaching hospitals,” Matas suggested.
He also cited some other possible reasons for Jews being attracted to psychiatry as a specialty: Jewish empathy for marginalized individuals; the Jewish tradition of Talmudic discussion; love of learning; and, for secular Jews – “psychiatry is a new religion”.
Neil Margolis suggested there has been “a huge decline in the number of Jews in the medical school here of late”, but Dr. Ira Ripstein, who said he was the Associate Dean, Undergraduate Medical Education in the Faculty of Medicine, chimed in, disagreeing somewhat with that assessment, saying, “I think we’re miscounting there. We have a lot of Argentinean and Russian Israelis (in medical school) – running about 10% of our enrolment”, which means that because their names might not be easily recognizable to others in the Jewish community, they tend to be overlooked.

Someone else wanted to give special attention to the contribution the late Ann Ross of the Mt. Carmel Clinic made to reproductive health. Richard Boroditsky noted that “all the Jewish Ob/Gyn guys were involved at Mt. Carmel Clinic. They were forced to go there by their mentors.”
As a concluding observation, Professor Irwin Lipnowski wondered how many more Jews might have landed in certain specialties had it not been for the quota system and how much of a factor that was in Jews ending up disproportionately in certain specialties? To which, Dr. Arnold Naimark explained that “a lot of specialists had their preferences who belonged and who didn’t belong. A lot of what they (the Jewish specialists in those fields that seemed to attract Jews more than other fields) had in common was a great sense of humour.”

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