letter

It’s good that Toronto Mayor is stand firm against racism.

It’s good he attacks Muslim imams for preaching “death to Jews.”

It’s good that Torontonians abhor racism in all forms but it wasn’t always that way.

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Harold Stein, a world renowned ophthalmologist, his colleague Dr. Albert Cheskes and their sons Dr. Richard Stein and Dr. Jordan Cheskes. All are ophthalmologists and all work out of the Bochner Eye Institute.

I ghost-wrote a book on the history of the Bochner and what I learned, excuse the pun, was eye-opening.

The clinic is named after Dr. Harold Stein’s father-in-law, Dr. Max K. Bochner (1900-1968), Toronto’s first fully qualified ophthalmologist who opened his practice on Bloor Street West in 1926.

His story is seldom told but it’s worth telling because not only did Dr. Bochner have to battle anti-Semitism in Toronto, he also had to battle it on University Ave where he was refused a residency – despite his unique and unassailable qualifications – at Toronto General Hospital simply because he was Jewish.

Think about it for a moment. This is in the mid-1920s. Toronto was as Waspish and small minded as it gets. Blacks, Irish, Jews were all second class citizens. It worth remembering that we aren’t far from our racist roots.

But back to Bochner’s story. Like many great men, Max Bochner was a unique man who overcame humble beginnings and prejudice to leave a lasting legacy on the city he loved. Growing up in the “Ward” as Toronto’s Jewish neighbourhood was called at the turn of 20th Century, he was the son of a scrap merchant blessed with an amazing intelligence and academic ability. Despite these gifts, however, he would still struggle to get into medical school and go on to qualify as a doctor and then an ophthalmologist.

This was because as a young Jewish kid in a city dominated by an anti-Semitic culture, few doors would open easily for him. Records show when Max was just a year old in 1900, Toronto’s Jewish population was only about 3,000 people mostly concentrated in “The Ward” bounded by College Street, Queen Street, Yonge Street and University Avenue and later into Kensington Market.

It started to change when Max hit his late teens and early 20s as the Diasporas triggered by World War I sought refuge in more stable lands where they could build a future. In 1900, just a year after his birth, Toronto was a city of just 238,000 with some 440,000 people when the suburbs were counted. By 1931 it has more than tripled to 856,955, with 810,000 all told including the suburbs. That trajectory of growth would continue through today where there are 2.6 million people in the city and more than six million in the GTA with the largest Jewish population in Canada.

Amidst all this rapid change, all Max knew was that he wanted to go to medical school. He certainly had the brains for it but money was the obstacle. Undeterred, he went out and earned the $800 he needed to pay tuition by selling Encyclopedia Britannica door to door, sometimes riding the train with his bicycle to small towns and villages far from Toronto to find customers.

Even then it wasn’t good enough. After med school no hospital would accept him as an intern because he was Jewish. Max, however, was determined and headed to the U.S. where he not only completed his medical training, but earned a scholarship and then a fellowship at one of the world’s most prestigious eye hospitals, the Wills Institute.

Yet again, however, prejudice blocked his entry into Toronto’s mainstream hospitals, despite his unquestionable credentials as the city’s first fully qualified ophthalmologist. In retrospect, perhaps it was serendipitous because Dr. Max Bochner went on to help found Scarborough General Hospital (known as The Scarborough Hospital today)  and to grow Mt. Sinai Hospital from a small maternity hospital in Yorkville to the august and respected teaching institution it is today on University Avenue. He went on to become chief of staff at Mount Sinai and, when it opened in 1956, Scarborough General.

He would hold both positions at the same time, a remarkable accomplishment and never again repeated in Toronto hospitals.

In 1926 he opened his offices on Bloor Street in an old house and a couple of years later moved to the Park Plaza at Avenue Road and Bloor, the first version of the Bochner Eye Institute, though it wasn’t called that in those days.

Times were harsh when Dr. Bochner first started his practice and there was no socialized medicine or provincially run Medicare plan. Some patients couldn’t afford to pay for their treatment at all; others could only offer farm produce in barter but Dr. Bochner refused to turn patients away.

For the poor who had no funds, he waived payments while he gladly accepted fruits baskets, vegetables and even chickens from local farmers. The wealthiest might pay a little more than the average wage earner, but it all evened out in the end.

The Toronto Max Bochner was born into Oct, 8, 1900 was dramatically different than the cosmopolitan, multi-cultural city it has become. Horse drawn carriages were still common in the streets and there just over 200,000 people living here. Roads were paved downtown but soon became dirt tracks outside the city center.

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Medicine was all private practice because publicly funded heath care was decades away from being a reality.

His father, Abraham C. Bochner, was a “rag and bones” man who trolled the streets in a horse and cart, picking up old clothing, scrap metal and rubber, anything he could find to resell.

It was the earliest form of recycling and while a humble trade, for Jewish immigrants drawn to Toronto from Europe, it was often the only type of work or business they could find. For many, language and education was an issue but the bigger issue was usually anti-Semitism. The good, white, Protestants of Toronto had no use for Jews, black and Catholics in those days.

As a result, life wasn’t easy for immigrants like the Bochners. The family lived for a while in Midland, Ontario, where young Max went to public school, before moving back to Toronto where he went to Jarvis Collegiate.

On graduation he went to the University of Toronto and was a member of the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity and, on graduation, because he couldn’t find a position at a Toronto hospital because of anti-Semitism, went to the University of Philadelphia. There he pursued his specialty in ophthalmology and was awarded a fellowship at the Graduate School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania before going on to work at the Wills Eye Institute, America’s first and longest serving eye hospital, founded in 1832.

Unable to get a residency in Toronto, again because he was Jewish, in 1924, Dr. Bochner went to Barnert Hospital, 236-bed facility in Patterson, New Jersey. After that he went on to a better position as the pathologist at the Kings Park Psychiatric Center on Long Island.

He returned to Toronto in 1926 and applied for a position at the Hospital For Sick Children but despite his credentials as a highly trained specialist the door was barred because the other doctors there would not accept a Jew.

As you’ll see from the copy of the letter here, some 30 doctors at the hospital all signed a letter saying they would resign if he was appointed.

Undeterred, Dr. Bochner quickly earned a reputation as the “go-to” guy for any eye injuries and diseases.

Dr. Bochner discovered, his career path lay at the “immigrant” hospital at 100 Yorkville Ave. where a few years earlier women from the Jewish community had knocked on doors and begged for enough funds to open an institution of their own: The Hebrew Maternity and Convalescent Hospital. By 1924 it had become the Mount Sinai Hospital registered with the Province of Ontario and by the middle of the century a new facility was built on University Avenue. Today, the original building in Yorkville is occupied by the retail store, Teatro Verde, and has a Historical Plaque outside marking it as the original site of Mt. Sinai.

Not bad for a doctor who couldn’t get a job because he was Jewish.

Racism impoverishes all of us, doesn’t it?