May Cohen is famous among Canadian doctors for her 40-year campaign to improve women’s health care in this country.
She is almost unknown, however, to the general public and the generations of women whose lives have been improved through her care and other efforts.
A new documentary film on the doctor’s life and work will make another small step in changing that when it is screened in March by the Toronto Jewish Film Society. It was shown in October as part of the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of McMaster University’s medical school.
“May Cohen is pretty well known in medical circles and with women who have been involved with women’s rights and reproductive campaigns,” said Dr. Cheryl Levitt, director of the documentary The Gender Lady: The Fabulous Dr. May Cohen. She is also on the medical school faculty at McMaster
“She has been inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame and there are eight national medical awards given in her name,” Levitt added. “It’s amazing there are all these awards in her name, yet she is invisible.”
Born in Montreal, Cohen graduated at the top of her class from the University of Toronto medical school in 1955, an era when fewer than seven per cent of medical students in Canada were women. After 20 years of family practice in Toronto with her husband Gerry, Cohen joined McMaster’s department of family medicine in 1977. When she retired in 1997 she was an associate dean of the school and founding chair of the women’s health office.
For Levitt, those bare facts are only the surface of a story that covers an important era of Canadian medical history.
“There has been a whole cadre of women family physicians who have been involved in the women’s liberation movement and bringing about equal health care for women and addressing women’s reproductive rights, but May was unique because she was able to move it along in the halls of traditional medicine and people listened to her,” Levitt said. “She was able to establish changes in the profession that others had not been able to do.”
Interviews with Cohen’s friends, family and colleagues revealed the story of a woman shaped by many forces that allowed her to challenge traditional ideas.
Her parents were both committed Communists in the era before and after the Second World War when such ideas were considered dangerous. The home they created, however, was filled with talk of social justice and the need for changes in society.
During her days as a family doctor, Cohen squarely faced the question of abortion arguing, along with Dr. Henry Morgentaler, that women had a right to control their own fertility. Those were the days when hospitals had to form abortion clinic to decide which women would be allowed to end unwanted pregnancies.
Through that work, Cohen got to know a breed of humanist physicians who were pushing for a new kind of medical education in Canada.
“Things started happening in the medical profession and it was because May and the people helping her were pushing,” Levitt said.
Levitt’s film, produced with long-time friend and Western University medical professor Barbara Lent, was edited by Mary Kainer, with Zoe Dirse and Sharon Hampson as executive producers.
Hampson, best known as part of the Sharon, Lois and Bram children’s entertainment team, is a long-time friend and patient of Cohen. In the film she says of Cohen, “She did what she needed to do, it was right and she changed the world.”
Cohen, who first saw the film in a private screening, said she initially had “mixed feelings” about it but retains “great gratitude to those who worked so hard on it.”
“When I graduated there was no such thing as women’s health, but now we know that it is more than just obstetrics and gynecology,” she said. “There is a clear recognition of the need today.”
The movie had its world premiere at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival earlier this year. It was financed, Levitt said, “on a shoestring” of small grants from McMaster University, the Federation of Medical Women and other sources.
The Gender Lady will be shown March 15 at 3 p.m., Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, 506 Bloor St. W. Tickets at https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/tjfs-the-gender-lady-the-fabulous-dr-may-cohen-tickets-79347571723.