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Medical faculty’s poisoned pill

Racist quota system kept Jews, Poles and more out of medicine

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One of the most significant episodes of anti-Semitism in Manitoba’s history was the exposure of the University of Manitoba faculty of medicine’s notorious quota system.
It was never easy for a Jewish student to be accepted into the medical college, but not impossible. Entrance was based on academic grades and the "moral, social and physical qualities" of the applicant. During the ’20s, on average, 64 new students were admitted each year into the faculty. Of these, 18, or about 25 per cent, were Jewish — a fair number by any estimation.
Any element of fairness vanished with the appointment of Dr. Alvin T. Mathers as dean of the faculty in 1932.
Starting that year, and for the next 12, strict quotas were set which severely regulated the number of Jews, Ukrainians, Poles and an assortment of other ethnic groups who could be admitted. Women were doubly discriminated against, making it next to impossible for a Jewish woman to be admitted. The members of the faculty administration and its professors were aware of the change in admittance practices, although it was not publicized.
By 1936, the number of Jewish students accepted each year into the school had dropped to nine or fewer. High grades or other qualifications made little difference — indeed, Jewish students with averages above 80 per cent were often turned down. The only criterion that ultimately mattered was race.
Each applicant had to designate his or her "racial origin" on the entrance application form. The faculty then made its selection from "preferred" and "non-preferred" lists, with only about 14 spots of the 64 annually offered set aside for students on the latter list.
Why had Dr. Mathers become the architect of such a blatantly racist policy? There was nothing in his background to indicate that he was anti-Semitic. He was a pioneer in the emerging field of psychiatry, an associate editor of the American Journal of Psychiatry, and highly respected in the international medical community. The only indication that he ever publicly gave of his thinking on this matter was at the 1944 provincial government committee hearing convened to investigate allegations about the quota system. When challenged, he argued without hesitation that "certain nationalities and groups" would never be welcomed as physicians and he saw no point in providing them with a medical education. Mathers also cautioned that if his procedures were not followed, the university could become too "Jewish." For his dedicated service, the university awarded Dr. Mathers an honorary Doctor of Laws in 1949.
With bright Jewish students being turned down for the medical college year after year, suspicions of an anti-Semitic policy were aroused. In 1936, the Israelite Press first brought the matter to the attention of Sidney Smith, president of the University of Manitoba and a former dean of the Dalhousie Law School. He indicated that he would look into the charges, but in the end did nothing. There matters stood until the fall of 1943, when members of the Avukah Zionist Society, a small Jewish university student study group, undertook its own investigation.
Avukah’s leader was Shlomo Mitchell, then a lecturer in the mathematics department. Mitchell and his friends devised an index-card system to track the hundreds of students who had gone through medical college from 1926 to 1943 and all those who had applied. Using directories, university information and interviews, they recorded all relevant biographical information, including each applicant’s ethnic origin. It took them more than five months to compile the data they collected.
Before the group could act, however, the Jewish community leader M.A. Gray, then a CCF MLA, found out about their investigation and used it to publicly accuse the Manitoba minister of education of discrimination at the faculty of medicine. The minister denied the allegations and Gray was ordered to produce evidence or withdraw his accusation.
Now that the issue was out in the open, the Avukah society decided to assist Gray. They enlisted the support of lawyer Hyman Sokolov to present their findings to a legislative committee.
Speaking before the provincial committee, Sokolov delivered a hard-hitting speech. Strategically using Avukah’s evidence, he lashed out at the university, a public institution supported by taxes, for violating the human rights of its students and for essentially rewarding failure.
In the audience listening to Sokolov were Judge A.K. Dysart, chairman of the University of Manitoba board of governors, Dr. Sidney Smith, and Dr. Alvin Mathers. Naturally, Smith dismissed the whole event "as a publicity stunt," while Mathers more or less confirmed the allegations by his comments that only certain nationalities and groups were fit to be doctors. Judge Dysart was also in denial, although he agreed to investigate further and report back to the legislative committee. Sokolov was permitted to participate in these meetings.
Within five months, Dysart was forced to admit that Avukah’s findings and Sokolov’s case had been proven: The faculty of medicine was guilty as charged of practising discrimination for the past 12 years. On threat of changing the Manitoba University Act, the university board of governors agreed to halt the practice immediately and insert into its regulations that henceforth "the selection [of faculty of medicine candidates] shall be made without regard to the racial origin or religion of the applicant."
This was an important and symbolic victory, but there was a long way to go. The matter of Jewish students in the medical college was raised at a meeting of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba in the spring of 1946. The chairman of the admissions committee was Dr. Bruce Chown, a brilliant pioneering Canadian pediatrician and scientist, yet he was clearly influenced by the prejudices of his day.
In his report, Chown noted that there were approximately 200 to 250 students in the university’s pre-med program, and from those 60 would be admitted into medicine. Based on their grades, 30 per cent of these new students would likely be Jewish — a point of some concern. While Chown acknowledged the problem of anti-Semitism and conceded that he was sympathetic to his "Jewish confreres," for many of whom he had a "warm affection," he was, nevertheless "unhappy" about this situation.
"We have not progressed so far in this country, or this community, that our Jewish citizens are completely amalgamated and looked upon simply as Canadians," he observed. Adding, with dubious logic that, "I cannot help but feel that concentration, such as is taking place in medicine, can only lead to more and bitter animosity."
Arguing that it was the duty of the College of Physicians and Surgeons to select the best men and women possible as well as to preserve peace in the land, he wondered if "those with some authority in the Jewish community" might be able to assist his committee in making the selection and thereby control the number of Jews who applied.

Adapted from Coming of Age: A History of the Jewish People of Manitoba, by Allan Levine. Published by the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada in association with Heartland Associates.

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