Dr. A. I. Willinsky

Dr. A.I. Willinsky and wife Sadie at Sarah (Vise) Willinsky’s birthday party, 1950s. OJA, accession 2006-9/3.Dr. Abraham Isaac Willinsky was one of Toronto’s earliest Jewish doctors, a founding member of the Toronto Jewish Medical Association, and an amateur filmmaker. He was born in 1885 in Omaha, Nebraska to Sarah Rebecca (nee Vise) and Myer Willinsky. One of seven children, he moved to Toronto with his family in 1890. As a child his life-long passion for photography was sparked while helping his uncle, Solomon Vise, with his photography business at 439 King Street east.

After graduating from University of Toronto’s medical school in 1908, Dr. Willinsky had difficulty securing an internship in Toronto due to discrimination against Jews. Forced to pursue clinical training elsewhere, he first worked as a temporary substitute doctor in Carp, Ontario, and went abroad in 1909 to study in Dublin and Vienna.

Returning home in 1910, Dr. Willinsky began his first practice as a Lodge Doctor working out of his home and office at College and Henry Streets. Still unable to find a hospital that would accept him, Dr. Willinsky pursued his growing interest in surgery by practicing as a ghost surgeon. In 1911, he married Sadie Dobensky from Bancroft, Ontario. They had three children together: Dorothy, Jack, and Myra.

In 1917, Dr. Willinksy secured work in New York as an ambulance doctor by adopting the name “Wills” and claiming to be Greek Orthodox. His skill was quickly recognized in Toronto and he was accepted as the Head of Genito Urinary Surgery at the Toronto Western Hospital in 1918.

In 1925, Dr. Willinsky was one of the forty practicing Jewish doctors who formed the Toronto Jewish Medical Association. Nearly all these physicians were staff of the original Mt. Sinai Hospital, which was established in 1923 at 100 Yorkville Avenue. For many years, he divided his time between Mount Sinai (where he served as Chief of Surgery) and Toronto Western Hospital. By 1928, he had set up his own practice at 569 Spadina Avenue. His practice remained at this location until his retirement. A pioneer in the area of spinal anesthesia (a technique he introduced to Toronto), Dr. Willinsky published many papers on this topic throughout his career and was the first physician to use a cytoscope for transurethral prostate surgery.

In his spare time, Dr. Willinsky was an avid filmmaker and shot dozens of films documenting his travels around the world and family activities in Ontario. In 1934 he became a founding member of the Toronto Amateur Movie Club and in 1941 delivered a lecture at the Royal Canadian Institute on the principles of amateur moviemaking. In 1945, he won an award for a medical film, Cystometrography, in which he used the animation technique of filming drawings. In his senior years, he tended to spend countless hours editing his films in the basement of his own home where he had set up a miniature theatre. Many of Dr. Willinsky’s incredible films are now housed at the Ontario Jewish Archives.

In 1960, Dr. Willinsky published an autobiography entitled, “A Doctor’s Memoirs”. He passed away in 1976 at the age of 91.

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