Question and Answer interview with Dr. May Cohen
1. What first attracted you to studying medicine at U of T?
As far as I’m concerned, my desire to be a doctor goes way back. At one point my mother expressed a desire to be a doctor but she never became one. Personally, I always wanted to be in medicine and there is one moment that I remember so clearly. I was on the street car and we drove passed the Western Hospital in Toronto. At that point I had decided to become a nurse because I wanted to have a family, and I figured I couldn’t have a family as a doctor. As we passed the hospital, I remember saying, ‘No, I don’t want to be a nurse I want to be a doctor.’ By the end of grade eight you had to choose which high school you wanted to go to. At that time the choices were either technical collegiate or commercial. Most of the women went to commercial to become secretaries and were often married at eighteen. However, I told my grade eight teacher that I wanted to go to collegiate. She asked why, and I said, ‘I want to be a doctor.’ She looked at me and said, ‘women do not become doctors.’ Despite this discouragement, I was always supported by my family. I am not sure whether it was my mother’s mention of wanting to be a doctor that influenced me or not but I never remember feeling that I wanted to be anything else.
2. You and your husband, Gerald (Gerry) Cohen, graduated from the Faculty of Medicine in the same year. How did you two meet and what was it like to study alongside one another?
Gerry and I first met at Harbord Collegiate Institute. We were married at the end of 1st medical year in pre-med and medical school I always stood first, except for the year that we got married and I stood second and he stood first. Otherwise he was second. So I ended up with a Gold Medal and he received Silver Medal upon graduation. We were never openly competitive and it did not really matter to us.
3. What is your fondest memory of being a student at U of T?
Being in the musical play, Daffydil, is one of my fondest memories because it was so much fun. I was in it in my second and third year - I really loved it. I still have the record on vinyl which was a recording of that show.
4. What was it like to be one of fourteen women in a male dominated profession during the 1950s?
The thing I remember very clearly was that on the first day of medical school the Dean of Medicine, Joseph Arthur MacFarlane came to welcome us and in part of his address he said, “you will wear a tie and shave every day.’ So I said, ‘the fourteen girls in the room could only look at their legs’. There were fourteen young women in my class and we became very close and we didn’t have to spend any time in line for the washroom (laughs). We had one clinic group, and usually these groups were for ten people but we were fourteen because it was believed by the powers that be that we could not be in a clinic group with men while looking at unclothed bodies. .
The women became very close and that was very nice. However, I do not think we were aware of gender discrimination because it was during a time before the feminist movement. I can remember one time, Dr. Grant who was the anatomy professor, would start every morning with saying “good morning gentlemen.’’. So one day, all fourteen of us girls sat in the front row and he still said “good morning gentlemen.” However, we really were not sensitized to the harm of discrimination. We were proud to be in there because we were sort of trailblazers, not that there weren’t women in medicine before us, but we were part of the ten percent of women allowed into the program. There is a sense of pride.
5. What did you do immediately after graduation? Did you specialize in anything?
Alter a one year rotating internship, I went on to study endocrinology with Jack Laidlaw as my mentor. After those two years, I really wanted to have a baby. However this would not be possible to combine with ongoing residency training under the residency requirements at that time.
In 1957 we bought a house and moved up north to Shepherd Avenue. Gerald opened his own family practice in the basement of our house. There was a flu epidemic that year so Gerry made a lot of house calls and that helped him to build up his practice very quickly. There is one day I remember very well. We had just had our first baby and he was about four-weeks old. I was home alone and somebody came to the door and wanted me take care of them but I said, I couldn’t. I was really torn about dual responsibilities. Despite that,. I gradually drifted into family medicine and eventually joined Gerald in his practice, first on a part-time basis and then eventually full-time. We eventually outgrew that space so we rented office space.
6. How did you become involved with women’s health?
My first awareness about women’s health was in 1975 when Canada participated in the International year of the Woman. At the time, the government subsidized communities to have workshops and Betty Stevenson, the president of the Canadian Medical Association, at that Tim, lived in our neighborhood and we knew her. She had been invited to Shelburne, Nova Scotia but didn’t have the time to go so she asked me to go in her place. There was no concept of ‘women’s health’ and ‘men’s health’ at the time, I believed that if you were a good doctor then you were a good doctor to both. I did a little research and then I went to Nova Scotia and to my amazement I learned that the locals could not get the doctors there to do breast exams or pap smears and there was a fair amount of violence against women. It became clear to me that I did not know whether this was going on in Toronto or elsewhere. Interestingly enough, the people I had met with wrote me a letter after I left saying they now had a doctor from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia who would provide more care to women, including pap smears. This was the very beginning of my involvement in women’s health care. After that I became involved with the pro-choice movement, sparked by the actions of Dr. henry Morgentaler Mergenthaler I became a member of an organization called Doctors for the Reform of the Abortion Law (DRAL) and there I met several people from McMaster while I was still in Toronto.
7. When did you and Gerry decide to make the move to Hamilton to begin your work at McMaster University?
Our practice had grown to include two other two other partners but our styles of practice had become more and more divergent, so we become increasingly disillusioned. At the same time, we wanted to teach but we were too busy to have students come in. We saw an ad in the Canadian Family Physician stating that the Department of Family Medicine at McMaster was expanding. WE applied and were granted interviews. The Chair of Family medicine said he would have both or none because if he only took one of us then we might move back to Toronto. In the interview, the chair asked Gerry, you know we were going to be doing the same job, whether he would be upset if May earned the same amount because in that case he would offer him $500 more a year. Yep, that’s what it was like.
8. What are you most proud of?
I don’t have a favourite achievement but I guess if I had to choose it would be the recognition, not that I’m conceited or anything, but the recognition I received were the five awards named in my honour. Also the involvement of so many like-minded people and feeling that I was a real activist. The activism sums up everything I was doing.
9. Do you have any Words of Wisdom for current U of T students?
In leadership roles or chairing committees, you have to hear what people say and let them know that you’ve heard them, even if you don’t agree with them or they get out voted, they will still feel as though they have been heard which is very important. You have to be disciplined, willing to do your share of the work and be prepared for what you’re doing. Even now, I spend an awful lot of time when I chair the board at my condominium, I it takes me two or three hours to get all the material and issues for debate organized so that I know what’s going on. Those are my words of wisdom. Above all enjoy what you’re doing because you’re in the best profession in the world as a doctor. You can do anything. You can even fly to the moon just as Dr. Roberta Bondar did!