MONTREAL — Few of the 150 people who attended the recent funeral of Dr. Sam Rabinovitch, who died Nov. 15 at age 101, did not know that Rabinovitch was the central figure in what is now described as the notorious “days of shame” in Quebec.
Those days were June 15-18, 1934, when the first medical strike in Canadian history occurred at a Quebec hospital.
And what triggered the strike?
The fact that Rabinovitch had been named chief intern at Notre-Dame Hospital.
In other words, the strike was antisemitic, a reaction to the fact that Rabinovitch, who had graduated at the top of his class from the Université de Montréal and had four brothers who were doctors, was the first Jew to earn a staff position at a Catholic hospital.
It was “one of the blackest antisemitic incidents in Canadian history,” said historian Joe King, who recounted the episode in his 2000 book, From the Ghetto to the Main, “as francophone doctors and priests pilloried Sam because he was Jewish.
“The doctors violated their Hippocratic Oath.”
According to a chronology of events leading up to the strike, posted on the Marianopolis College website, Rabinovitch had been hired as a senior intern the previous February.
When between February and June three interns left Notre-Dame for positions at other hospitals and it was announced that Rabinovitch would become chief intern on June 15, a petition circulated among the interns in early June for Rabinovitch’s contract to be broken, but the hospital medical board refused.
The petition spoke against a “Hebrew” joining the staff.
The board’s refusal triggered the June 15 strike by all of Notre-Dame’s French-Canadian interns in support of the petition. When the interns were told by authorities that they would then have to resign, the strike spread to four other hospitals, including Sainte-Justine and Hôtel-Dieu, creating an urgent needs for medical support from other hospitals.
According to a 2003 article by Peter Wilton in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), “there was even a possibility that [the strike] would move beyond the hospital and develop into a general boycott of Jewish businesses and the Jewish community in general.”
But Notre-Dame stood firm, hiring new interns on June 16 and 17. The next day, though, Rabinovitch resigned out of concern that patients were paying the price, even though many in the Jewish community felt he shouldn’t have quit.
“In view of the serious and dangerous conditions to which the patients at Notre-Dame and other hospitals [are subject to] because of the refusal of a number of the interns to take orders from their superiors,” Rabinovitch wrote in his June 18 resignation letter.
“I feel it my duty as a physician to tend my resignation… I bemoan the fact that so many French-Canadian physicians, namely graduates, should have ignored the first duty of their oath.”
Within hours, according to the CMAJ article, the interns were back at work, and Rabinovitch left Montreal for St. Louis, to intern, ironically, at another Catholic hospital.
He returned to Montreal in 1940, specializing in internal medicine, and later went on to become Canada’s oldest practising physician, treating patients in his clinic well into his 90s.
In 2004, at the 70th anniversary of the strike, he told the CMAJ: “I bear no ill will toward anybody. The hospital administration was wonderful to me – it was just a few instigators that stirred up all the trouble, and for them it was just the case that I was Jewish and they were Catholics.
“I just did not belong. I suppose in the end that is the frightening thing about hatred… it is just that simple.”
Rabinovitch was pre-deceased by brothers Boaz, Phineas, Jacob and Irving. He is survived by his wife, Shirley Geffen; children Marlene and Mark, and grandchildren Arielle and Robert.