Dr. May Cohen (b. 1931) is a family physician, educator, activist, researcher, former university administrator, and advocate of women physicians and women’s health.
Cohen was born in Montréal and raised in Toronto. Her parents—Sam and Manya Lipshitz—were Jewish émigrés to Canada from Eastern Europe and progressive political activists. At an early age, Cohen resolved to become a doctor. She graduated from high school as the top student in Ontario. Cohen attended medical school at the University of Toronto where less than ten percent of medical students were women. In 1955, she graduated at the top of her class and earned a gold medal for academic excellence.
For twenty years, Cohen practiced family medicine in Toronto with her husband, Dr. Gerald (Gerry) S. Cohen (1931-2017; m. 1952). The couple also raised three sons during this time.
Abortion was illegal in Canada when Cohen began her career. Though most of her patients were able to travel to England for a legal abortion, it became clear to her that the law was problematic when one of her patients died from complications of an illegal abortion. Women should have the right to autonomy over their own bodies, Cohen argued. After the law was amended in 1969 to allow abortion under certain circumstances, she joined the abortion decision committee at Branson Hospital and fought for access to legal and safe abortions for Canadian women. She became a prominent voice in debates surrounding the right of women to choose abortion.
In 1975—International Women’s Year—Cohen traveled to Shelburne, Nova Scotia to lead a workshop on women’s health as part of a project funded by the Canadian government. There, she came to realize that women living in some areas of the country did not have access to routine breast exams or pap smears. From here on, Cohen campaigned to ensure that women’s health needs were being appropriately met across Canada.
Two years later, Cohen was appointed to the Department of Family Medicine in the Faculty of Health Sciences at McMaster University.
From 1987-1988, while on sabbatical, Cohen travelled to Australia to deliver seminars to doctors on how to discuss human sexuality with their patients. There, she learned of an ongoing study investigating women’s health needs in each state. Inspired by this effort, upon her return, Cohen spearheaded the development of a Women’s Health Office at McMaster. Founded in 1991, this office was the first of its kind in any Canadian medical school. Its mandate was to research and raise awareness of diseases that affect women differently. Several other Canadian medical schools subsequently decided to found similar offices. A group of academics from the five Ontario medical schools was eventually formed, called the Women’s Health Inter School Curriculum Committee (WHISCC), to pursue a united effort.
In 1990 and 1991, Cohen served as President of the Federation of Medical Women in Canada. Between 1991 and 1996, she served the Faculty of Health Sciences as Associate Dean of Health Services. She is now retired and lives in Toronto.
A pioneer of women’s health and a champion of gender-based healthcare, Cohen has called on the medical profession to reconsider its approach to women’s health concerns and to recognise the particularities of women’s health. She has advocated the right of a woman to make decisions regarding her own health. She has also played an important role in raising awareness and advancing the treatment of women’s health issues ranging from cancer to domestic abuse.
Cohen has advocated gender equality within the medical profession and has broken down barriers for women physicians. She has challenged the male-centric paradigm in medicine and has called on medical schools to include women’s health in their curricula. She is also a pioneer in teaching medical students and physicians about healthy sexual practices and eliminating sexual taboos and gender stereotyping.
Cohen has earned numerous prestigious awards and honours. These include the Canadian Medical Association Medal of Service and the Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case. In 2016, she was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. One year later, she was named an Officer of the Order of Canada. Awards and positions named in her honour include the Eli Lilly-May Cohen Chair in Women’s Health at McMaster. In 2019, two of Cohen’s colleagues, Dr. Cheryl Levitt and Dr. Barbara Lent, released a short documentary about her called The Gender Lady: The Fabulous Dr. May Cohen.