By Heather Gardiner
“It was very, very, very, very tough for the women in those days.” – Dr. Minnie Cohen, recalling her experience in medical school in the early 1920s.
For Women’s History Month, the Women’s College Hospital (WCH) Archives is sharing and celebrating the medical career of Dr. Minnie Cohen – a young Jewish woman in Toronto who overcame many challenges and barriers in the 1920s to achieve her dream of becoming a paediatrician.
Historians recognize Dr. Cohen as the first Jewish woman to graduate from the University of Toronto’s (UofT) Faculty of Medicine and the first female Jewish doctor to practice in Toronto. Interestingly, Dr. Cohen got her clinical start in medicine at WCH. She was also one of the founding members of WCH’s Community Clinical Association – a group of female doctors who provided “free medical attention to the needy poor of the city.”
Minnie was born in Russia in the year 1900. Her father, Bernard Wladowsky, was a renowned Cantor and music composer, whose job required his family to move frequently. As a child, Minnie lived in Turkey and Romania before moving to Chicago and New York City. Early on, her family recognized that Minnie was an exceptional young girl. While still a child, she became an accomplished pianist and fluent in five languages. In 1912, the family moved to Toronto and Minnie attended Jarvis Collegiate where she earned her high school diploma in only three years. At the age of sixteen, she was accepted to UofT and then enrolled in its Faculty of Medicine.
As a member of the Class of 1921, she was one of only seven women in a class of approximately one hundred and fifty men – and the only Jewish woman. As a woman in medical school, she faced constant discrimination by the professors.
“We [female students] had to be very very close…. And at no time did I feel different from any of the others. Nor did they treat me differently. We were always together,” she later recalled. “Always close because we were discriminated against being women by the professors… We were discriminated in such a way you could not mistake it… The professors were always male, of course, and they would make a nasty remark about females… [we] resented any dirty, nasty remarks that were made to embarrass the women. Dirty jokes and things like that.”
In addition, Minnie also faced discrimination in her class for being Jewish. For example, she vividly remembers one incident that took place during a final exam.
“On my final exam [in] oral surgery, I was being examined by one of the surgeons…. there was no question about his antagonism towards Jewish students, particularly me – a woman,” she explained. “His questions were such that I resented…It was tough.”
While in medical school, Minnie was accepted as a junior intern at WCH in 1919. Over the next two years, she continued to intern at WCH during the summers and on holidays. After graduating with a medical degree in 1921, Dr. Cohen completed post-graduate studies in paediatrics in Chicago, and then returned to Toronto where she started her own private practice as a pediatrician.
Even after graduation, Dr. Cohen maintained a relationship with WCH. In 1923, she was a founding member of WCH’s Community Clinical Association and volunteered to oversee the “Well Baby Free Clinic” that operated out of the Euclid Avenue Church every Wednesday. Dr. Cohen eventually left WCH to join the newly formed Mount Sinai Hospital. Throughout her career, Dr. Cohen continued to volunteer for many organizations that were meaningful to her, including serving as a board member on the Canadian Jewish Welfare Council, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Social Planning Committee of Metro Toronto.
This Women’s History Month we recognize the determination and courage of Dr. Minnie Cohen. In spite of the many challenges and barriers that she faced as the first Jewish woman to graduate from UofT’s Faculty of Medicine and as the first female Jewish doctor to practice in Toronto, she maintained a successful practice as a pediatrician and continued to give back to the community throughout her career. We are proud that Dr. Cohen chose WCH as the place to start her medical career.
Thank you to the Ontario Jewish Archives for providing access to an oral history interview with Dr. Minnie Cohen conducted in 1976.