First all-Jewish Winnipeg medical group remembered

First all-Jewish Winnipeg medical group remembered

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Winnipeg City Hall in 1925 WIKI COMMONS PHOTO
Winnipeg City Hall in 1925 WIKI COMMONS PHOTO

The Mall Medical Group in Winnipeg, founded in 1947, was the first all-Jewish medical group in Manitoba, and the history of the practice, which closed in 1996, was one of three presentations June 9 at an event kicking off the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada’s newest project: a compilation of the history of physicians in Manitoba.

“We were hoping to get a good turnout and that people will share their own stories,” says Dr. Nathan Wiseman, who is chairing the new project.

The JHC co-hosted the evening, “A Century of Jewish Physicians in Manitoba,” at the Berney Theatre, in partnership with the University of Manitoba Rady College of Medicine Archives. The moderator for the evening was Dr. Arnold Naimark, the first Jewish dean of medicine and the second Jewish president of the University of Manitoba. It featured presentations by college of medicine archivist Jordan Bass, Dr. Daniel Klass, who spoke about the Mall Medical Group, and Dr. Lorne Brandes on the role of Jewish physicians in cancer care and research in Manitoba.

Brandes, a recently retired oncologist and researcher, just published a book, Survival: A Medical Memoir, an account of the trials and tribulations of developing a new cancer drug and trying to get it to market.

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Klass’ father, Dr. Alan Klass, was a founder of the Mall Medical Group, along with doctors Charles Bermack, Laurie Rabson, Sam Easton, David Bruser, Ruvin Lyons and Manly Finklestein.

The germ of the idea for Mall Medical, Daniel Klass said, grew out of conversations between his father, Bruser and Rabkin while the three were serving overseas in World War II in the medical corps.

“After they were decommissioned and returned to Winnipeg, they found there weren’t many openings for Jewish doctors,” Klass said. “So they opened their own clinic with other Jewish doctors who had served in the military.”

The doctors at Mall Medical further made their mark, Klass said, when they became the first doctors group in the province to contract to provide full pre-paid medical services for organized labour. As he explained, Winnipeg’s garment industry – one of the city’s largest employers – had undergone years of labour strife. Most of the workers and most of the garment plant owners were Jewish.

Sam Herbst was a union organizer who first came to Winnipeg in the mid-1930s to unionize the garment workers, Klass said. In 1947, as business manager for the 1,500-member International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, he negotiated a deal with factory owners to create a “welfare and sick fund,” into which 15 employers paid the equivalent of five per cent of their total payroll and employees paid another one per cent. The fund covered holiday pay, medical services through the Mall Medical Group and hospitalization costs for employees and their families. The plan was the first of its kind in North America.

Klass said that after Mall Medical closed, most of its archives were lost.

“All we have right now are copies of archives from some private collections,” he says. “We are hoping to reach out to others across the country who may have documents they could give us or vignettes that they can share about the Mall Medical Group and Manitoba Jewish doctors. “

The ultimate goals, said Wiseman, are to create an archive and publish a book on the history of Jewish doctors in Manitoba. Wiseman, a pediatric surgeon, said the project will explore a number of different areas. Part of the focus will be on the early doctors who were trained in Europe, as well as more recently arrived physicians from England, South Africa and Israel. Other areas will include Jewish women in medicine; second- and third-generation doctors; rural doctors; Jewish doctors who were leaders and pioneers in their fields; and how the quota system on Jewish medical students was broken in the late 1940s.

“We have a committee of 14 working on this,” Wiseman said. “Everyone we approached was enthusiastic about the project.”

Former Winnipeggers with stories can email cmjpcommittee@gmail.com.