The spinster who lectures wives on love and childbirth

once delivered fifty babies in one month; her book on life and love is a current best-seller; she’s swamped with lecture and TV offers. “Fantastic endurance” makes it possible and straight talk makes it stick

DOROTHY SANGSTER November 23 1957

The spinster who lectures wives on love and childbirth

once delivered fifty babies in one month; her book on life and love is a current best-seller; she’s swamped with lecture and TV offers. “Fantastic endurance” makes it possible and straight talk makes it stick

DOROTHY SANGSTER November 23 1957

The spinster who lectures wives on love and childbirth


once delivered fifty babies in one month; her book on life and love is a current best-seller; she’s swamped with lecture and TV offers. “Fantastic endurance” makes it possible and straight talk makes it stick


In an age when most physicians and surgeons are wary of publicity, afraid to go out on a limb, hesitant to generalize (or worse still, to specify), a fifty-five-year-old Toronto doctor named Marion Hilliard has earned an international reputation by speaking her mind, in private and in public.

Dr. Hilliard’s recently published book. A Woman Doctor Looks at Love and Life, is currently in its second printing of forty thousand copies. Most of its chapters appeared originally in the Canadian magazine. Chatelaine, and since publication it has been serialized in twenty-six newspapers here and in the United States. As a consequence, thousands of Canadian women are as familiar with Marion Hilliard’s photograph and forthright views as with those of their own doctors. Offers of lecture tours and television appearances reach her almost daily.

So far as the public is concerned, she has Arrived.

In Canadian medical circles, Dr. Hilliard arrived long ago. For ten years, until she retired from the post last spring, she was chief of obstetrics and gynaecology at Women's College Hospital in Toronto, a unique institution staffed entirely by women doctors. Although she has recently given up most of her large and lucrative obstetrical practice so as to devote more time to gynaecology, she still handles difficult deliveries. She performs operations five days a week. She is a past president of the Federation of Canadian Medical Women and is currently vice-president of the International Federation of Medical Women. She is also probably the only Canadian doctor to have a fellowship established in her name by her grateful patients, thirteen hundred of whom have subscribed $7,500 toward an annual grant to some young doctor or nurse or medical project at Women’s College Hospital.

Yet — “There's nothing interesting about me

except my endurance,” says Marion Hilliard, who is seldom given to understatement.

Fellow physicians agree that her endurance is fantastic. They have known her to dash fifteen miles to the hospital from her house in suburban Scarborough three times in one night, deliver three babies, snatch a total of two hours sleep and turn up again at eight in the morning, rested and ready to undertake surgery, committee meetings, ward rounds and private appointments. She seldom looks tired, never complains and refuses to slow down.

“Marion is congenitally hopped up,” says Dr. Jessie Gray, chief of surgery at Women’s College Hospital.

Whatever the cause of her acceleration, it has sped Dr. Hilliard through a life of considerable achievement. Ten years ago, when her practice was at its peak, she was delivering fifty infants a month and struggling to limit her daily appointments to forty. She continued on page 84

The spinster who lectures wives continued from page 18

“Patients who don’t like to hear the truth don’t like Dr. Hilliard’’

has lost count of all the girl babies named Marion in her honor, but recalls that one of her patients, a young woman evacuated from Birmingham, England, during World War II, proudly named her baby boy Jonathan Hilliard Shapiro.

As a gynaecologist, Dr. Hilliard has won distinction by caring as much for the mind as for the body.

The amount of ignorance abroad in the world never fails to astonish her. Married women have come to her for their first gynaecological examination as long as six years after their wedding day and she has had to inform them that the reason they haven’t had babies is that they are still virgins. Brides have collapsed in tears on her desk, relating their miserable honeymoon experiences. Middle-aged patients who think sex is nasty and degrading have begged her advice on how to win back husbands who have unaccountably begun to stray.

Faced with a straight question. Dr. Hilliard sees no reason for withholding a straight answer. Her advice is positive and practical. Self-pity, in herself or others, she can’t abide.

When, for instance, a young wife expressed horror and unwillingness at the idea of occasionally pretending an enjoyment of sex just to make her husband happy, Dr. Hilliard regarded her levelly and enquired, “Do you want your marriage to work, or don’t you?”

When an unmarried career girl com-

plained bitterly that life had passed her by and it wasn’t fair, spinster Hilliard passed on her own personal philosophy of inevitability (live happily and vigorously with what you’ve got; accept with courage and good humor what you haven’t got). “Life comes back into focus at forty, and once the menopause is over you’ll feel wonderful,” she consoled her.

One of her most widely printed and reprinted stories concerns a pretty young woman who found herself pregnant after a visit to a man’s apartment, although, as she assured Dr. Hilliard tearfully, she “wasn’t that kind of a girl.” Dr. Hilliard just snorted.

“Everyone who isn’t suffering from glandular imbalance is ‘that kind of a girl,’ ” she says. “Women shouldn’t underestimate their own biology; it’s always being triggered off.” She doesn’t believe there’s any such thing as platonic love between a man and a woman who are alone together a lot, and thirty years in the business have convinced her that the saddest words of tongue or pen are, “Don’t worry, little girl, I’ll take care of you.”

Most patients are grateful for Dr. Hilliard’s advice, if not at the time, then later. But some stamp off and are never seen again.

“Marion calls the shots as she sees them,” says Dr. Eva Mader MacDonald, a close friend. “Patients who don’t like to hear the truth don’t like her.”

Over the years, most of Dr. Hilliard’s energy and exuberance have been turned in the direction of Women’s College Hospital. It was her dream that the University of Toronto would someday recognize the high standards and excellent facilities of her department and make it a teaching unit for medical students. In 1955 her dream came true. She has earmarked the Canadian royalties from her book for the hospital and campaigned twice for funds: once in 1928 for the present building and again in 1953 when four million dollars was required for modern equipment, a new wing and a nurses’ residence. She has never been afraid to tackle anybody for funds, and some of her methods have been ingenious. In 1947, when she heard it said that the United Church had turned down a financial donation from O’Keefe’s Brewing Company, she hurried right down and persuaded the beer manufacturers to give the money to Women's College Hospital. “I figured it must be in their budget already, and who needed it more than we did, or for better work?” she says.

O’Keefe’s granted the hospital five thousand dollars a year for the next five years, making possible, among other things, the establishment of its well-known cancer-detection clinic. Dr. Hilliard was delighted, although a member of the hospital’s board of governors resigned on moral grounds.

According to Dr. Hilliard’s medical

friends, she’s the most guileless soul on earth, but they say that in matters relating to the hospital she’s not above scheming. “Marion can bite off more than all the rest of us can chew,” the late Dr. Gwen Mulock, a close friend, once remarked wryly.

What energy she isn’t throwing into her profession, Dr. Hilliard invests in outside activities like sports, YWCA work and gardening. She’s a baseball fan, a football fan who seldom misses a Grey Cup playoff, and a hockey fan who once played the game herself.

Bobbie Rosenfeld, Canada’s great allround woman athlete and now a sports writer, recently referred to her on a television program as “a centre who scored the only goal on the Varsity girls’ team of ’28. a girl who could shoot like a boy and skate like a whippet, a real going concern on skates.” These days, tly fishing for trout is her favorite sport. Every summer she goes off with a couple of friends to an isolated camp in Laurentide Park, and Dr. Marjorie Davis, assistant head of surgery at Women’s College Hospital, cherishes memories of the time their guide got lost and the funniest sight in the Quebec woods was Marion Hilliard in long wool socks and running shoes leaping from rock to rock on a mile-long portage.

“Something keeps her going,” her friends say. It could be her religion. Because babies are born on Sunday morning just as on other mornings, Dr. Hilliard has never been much of a churchgoer, but she is intensely—-and practically —religious. For the past six years, she and nine other women, most of them doctors like herself, have met together every Thursday night during Lent to discuss the Bible and participate in what she calls “a kind of out-patients’ retreat.” When she began cutting down on her obstetrical practice four years ago, she found time to join the national board of the YWCA and headed its Christian Emphasis and Membership Committee. Last summer she represented the Y at the World Council of Churches in Connecticut, and she is just entering a four-year term as one of three vice-presidents.

Is it just energy that made Marion Hilliard a notably successful doctor? Dr. Dorothy Daley, a close friend, thinks there’s another reason. “Marion gets closer to her patients than the rest of us,” she explains.

Dr. Hilliard says that if she gets close to her obstetrical patients it’s because they realize she loves babies as much as they do. She says, “I’ve never been frustrated at having to give up some personal pleasure to deliver a baby, and I’ve never gone off call. Even in the theatre. I’ve always left my seat number so the hospital could locate me. One Christmas I was home exactly two minutes, and during my mother’s eightieth birthday celebration I was called out three times! Once I delivered babies for thirteen nights in a row, and once I had a run of nine abnormal babies one after the other. I kept praying the next one would be all right. Number ten was a lovely normal boy.”

The glandular changes of her patients during their pregnancy have always fascinated her. Some women, she has observed. become morose and tired in the months preceding the birth of their children, and perk up once the ordeal is over. Others float gaily in and out for months, their feet barely touching the ground, unaware of what a psychological letdown they're in for. She's not a sentimentalist (“Women who call their infants ‘bundles of love’ appall me,” she once declared) but she's glad she chose obstetrics as her life work.

“Obstetricians have the opportunity of treating the whole life of a patient, rather than just the health,” she says. “During the twelve months during and after a pregnancy, there are several moments of what might be called total communication.” She remembers one young woman who carried her baby full term, as casually as if it were a sack of potatoes, neither happy nor unhappy but just detached. Three weeks after the birth of a healthy daughter, she inexplicably committed suicide. Hilliard berates herself, “I should have suspected something. It’s not normal to be detached from life.”

Although she has learned never to try to predict the sex of a baby in advance, even in fun (“You say just as a gag ‘Well, how would you like a bouncing baby boy?’ and the next thing you know they’re telling their friends you've promised them a son”), once the baby is born she can’t wait to announce the good news to its father. She used to forget the sex of the child she had just delivered; now she is careful to write it down. Even so, she still makes mistakes.

Once she phoned one of three Mr. Smiths who had had babies the same night and told him “Congratulations! You have a lovely baby girl!”

“That’s queer,” said the wrong Mr. Smith, “I had a lovely baby boy only an hour ago.” Another time, she tracked down a new father by telephoning his business office where she was connected by mistake with his seventy-year-old father. “You have a lovely baby boy!” she began gaily. “I know,” said the senior member of the firm just as gaily. “I’ve had him for forty years!”

Although most parents are happy to accept a healthy baby whatever its sex, once in a while she has run across parents who weren’t. One woman, informed she had just borne twin boys instead of the girl she wanted, opened her mouth and howled like a banshee. An infuriated father, informed that his wife had just given him a baby girl, snapped, “She can’t have—we’re having a boy.”

She’s discovered that second children ire the big disappointment to parents who have made up their mind what sex they

prefer. She explains, “A third boy when you have two boys already is no great surprise, and when number four turns up a boy his parents have long since recognized that they’re in a rut.”

Loving new babies as she does, she was delighted a few years ago when a CBC reporter brought a tape recorder into the delivery room for a broadcast. She recalls, “An immigrant woman was in labor that morning, and her first words were ‘Oh, my husband will be so happy!" The recorder even caught the first little snuffly noises the baby made. It was all very tender and simple and later on we played it at a girls’ school and the youngsters just loved it. But some member of parliament actually got up and criticized the CBC for letting it go on the air!”

Now that she’s devoting most of her time to gynaecology, Dr. Hilliard’s phone doesn’t ring several times during the night the way it used to do, and she can't get used to seven hours of uninterrupted sleep. She spends five mornings a week in the operating rooms of Women’s College Hospital, devotes her afternoons to her private practice, and is back home by six p.m. After a relaxing stroll through her garden, she sits down to dinner with her friend Poppy Boynton, a professor at the university School of Social Work, who shares her large house, and then settles down to a quiet evening reading, listening to hi-fi, or planning her next speech.

By any standards, Dr. Hilliard’s speeches are extraordinary. When she gives them, they sound fine, but written down on paper they go every which way, like a haystack. One of her most successful speeches, addressed to the nurses’ graduating class of Women’s College Hospital at their own request, started out in typical Hilliard fashion by detailing four topics she wasn’t going to discuss, before getting around to her real topic, Inevitability and Love, illustrated by apparently random reflections on the batting technique of Mickey Mantle, a delicate operation performed that morning, and the beginning of wisdom as depicted in a Hollywood movie entitled Lili.

“Taken down on a tape recorder,” Dr.

Hilliard sighs, “my speeches are very peculiar.”

Sheer personality, however, puts them across. Dr. Dorothy Daley, who has listened to dozens of them, says, “She seems to catch something out of the audience, and she goes on from there.” When word got about that she would speak at a north Toronto home and school club meeting last year, a thousand people unexpectedly turned up and a p.a. system had to be hurriedly installed. Her talks on marriage to bride-and-groom schools, YWCA and church groups are highly popular.

Some years ago, she addressed the teen-age girls of Victoria College on the subject of sex with such vivid effect that one of them fainted at her feet. Dr. Hilliard propped her up, loosened her collar and demanded, “Well, do you want to hear it from me or from some man?”

Planning a speech, her usual procedure is to jot down her ideas in sequence, with enough anecdotes to put them across. She can remember only two speeches she ever wrote out in full. One was intended for a group of non-medical professional women and the other for ladies’ night at a men’s service club. She says, “I felt neither of them was a great success. I wasn’t lit up over them because I was reading them.”

After years of sharing the same house, Professor Boynton has learned that when her friend isn’t planning a speech she’s planning a party. The spacious grounds with their tall trees and old-fashioned gardens, and the beautiful house furnished in warm brown tones by decorator Freda James, are a perfect setting and Dr. Hilliard loves parties. She gives receptions for visiting celebrities, afternoon teas to the nurses’ graduating class, and Christmas parties for the children of her medical friends. Dinner parties are her favorite kind of celebration, because then she can cook Italian pasta or Chinese barbecued spare ribs in soybean sauce and sherry. One of her recent parties was for Dr. Ellen Blatchford, her anaesthetist and “right-hand man” for twenty-six years, who had just retired from the hospital staff. “To my favorite Night Rider,” she inscribed on the silver cigarette case she gave her friend, in memory of many a dark night when they had sped through city streets to the delivery room.

A few years ago, when Dr. Hilliard remarked facetiously that nobody ever gave her a party, several doctors with a sense of humor arranged a bride’s shower in her honor. The gifts included a hat decorated with gynaecology instruments, a book with blank pages entitled Sex After Sixty and a complete wardrobe of clothes for herself and a mythical groom named Herbert Rover de Wolf. The evening was gay, and at the end of it Dr. Hilliard donned the entire wardrobe and then auctioned it off, piece by piece, back to the donors. The funds, needless to say, went to Women’s College Hospital.

The mythical Herbert Rover de Wolf is the only husband Dr. Hilliard has ever had. In her book, she tells about the man she once hoped to marry. He was an engineer and had been away on a project for several months. She was an interne at the time, and had spent four successive nights on duty in the delivery room. On the fifth night he returned to town and took her to dinner in a borrowed automobile. The car was warm and she was tired and as he eagerly discussed his plans for the future she fell fast asleep. He drove her back to the hospital, bade her a curt goodnight, and began to date other girls. Not very long after, he married someone else.

“Then,” writes Dr. Hilliard, “he pre-

sented me with my Gethsemane. He asked me to be his wife’s doctor and deliver their first baby. It was a valuable experience. On Mother’s Day, in the early morning, their child was born. If I could accept that and survive, and I could, then I could withstand anything.”

To critics who suggest sourly that a single woman is hardly an authority on married bliss or the lack of it, Dr. Hilliard retorts that occasionally a view from the sidelines is best. Married women tend not to see the woods for the trees, and she’s learned a lot about husbands from their wives. Her bitterest renunciation was not a mate but motherhood. As a little girl, she planned to marry and have ten babies. Ironically, she is the only member of her family who has never married.

The analogy of the bent twig is more than usually evident when one considers Marion Hilliard’s early environment. She was born in Morrisburg, Ontario, the middle child of five born to Anna McAmmond and Irwin Hilliard, a member of the Ontario Legislature and a strongwilled lawyer who retired at seventy-five,

then bought back his practice and continued to work until his death. Dancing and cardplaying were strictly forbidden in the Hilliard home, and the two worthwhile professions were considered to be teaching and preaching. Dr. Hilliard’s elder brother is a preacher, her two sisters taught school before they were married, and her younger brother, Irwin Jr., is now professor of medicine at the University of Saskatchewan.

Skating and tennis and sliding down the banisters were permitted in the Hilliard household as healthy, active sports, but fun came after work and the keynote of the home was responsibility and initiative. The youngest sister, Mrs. Barbara McNeel of Toronto, says, “If you saw apples in a pan you automatically made applesauce.” Young Marion was a natural for this kind of home: she was direct, helpful, and ready to tackle anything. Mrs. McNeel recalls that one day the organist failed to show up for a meeting of the Women's Missionary Society, and Mrs. Hilliard called her daughter before her. “Marion, dear, you are going to have to play the organ for us,” she said pleasantly. Fourteen - year - old Marion, who was taking piano lessons but had never touched an organ, obligingly sat down, struck a few horrible chords, then got the hang of the thing and played for two hours.

This kind of cheerful attack on whatever needs to be done has distinguished Dr. Hilliard all her life. After she grad-

uated in medicine from the University of Toronto in 1927 she went to England on a scholarship to study obstetrics at the Queen Charlotte Hospital in London, Women’s Hospital in Soho Square, and Ireland’s famous maternity hospital, The Rotunda. Back home in Toronto, she was eager for a staff appointment at Toronto General Hospital, but Professor William Hendry, its chief of obstetrics, told her, “Here, you’d be nothing but the flick of a duck’s tail. Go to your own hospital and make it something.” So she joined the staff of Women’s College Hospital, then a crowded seventy-five-bed house on Rusholme Road, as assistant to Chief Obstetrician Dr. Marion Kerr. “The reason I was first assistant right off was because there were only the two of us,” she explains.

Her private practice, which she began that same year, was virtually non-existent. There was, to begin with, discrimination against women doctors thirty years ago. Female medical students found it hard to get specialist training. Dr. Hilliard says, “To succeed, your performance had to be twenty-five percent better than that of your male competitor. Women distrusted other women, and nobody came near us if they could help it.” She recalls one Toronto housewife who attended the hospital clinic during her first pregnancy. She came to Dr. Hilliard to have her deliver her second child for twenty-five dollars during Depression days. By the time this woman was pregnant for the third time, the Depression was over and her husband was becoming prosperous. “This time,” she informed him happily, “We’ll have a real (i.e. male) doctor!”

Dr. Eva MacDonald, who was interning then and sharing a flat on St. Mary’s Street with Dr. Hilliard, recalls Dr. Hilliard's early struggles with no automobile, no good clothes (she wore the same blue tweed suit for five years and finally had to burn it) and, worst of all, no patients. In those Depression days nobody was wasting good money on doctors. Public wards were full and private rooms empty. Young Dr. Hilliard considered herself fortunate to get fifty cents apiece for examining swimmers at the Y pool, five dollars for an evening lecture to the Health League (with refreshments at the end of it) and finally a part-time job with the Children’s Aid Society where her eyes were opened to the seamier side of life.

Asked recently what happened in the gap between these early days of relative poverty and her present state of relative wealth, Dr. Hilliard retorted “Hard work . . . eighteen hours a day of hard work . . . that’s what happened.” By the midthirties, money was more plentiful, satisfied patients were recommending her to their friends, and her practice was growing by leaps and bounds. She was specializing by watching experts on the job. She went to Boston to study the surgical technique of Dr. Joseph Megs, the famous gynaecologist, and she went to New York to consult with authorities on problems of female infertility. Discovering a scheme whereby a doctor could pay a fat fee for the privilege of assisting an internationally famous Hungarian surgeon with his own practice, she wrote the great man and was accepted. He had presumed from her Christian name, Marion, that she was a man, and when she turned up in Budapest very much a woman he was so furious that he ordered her to go home and study nutrition. On second thought, he permitted her to stay as one of twelve assistants for a full six weeks.

By 1947, when Dr. Kerr retired and Dr. Hilliard succeeded her as chief of

obstetrics and gynaecology, she was well known in Toronto for her professional skill and her forthright views. Three years ago, she and journalist June Callwood, one of her former patients, collaborated on a series of articles for Chatelaine magazine. Women from coast to coast read her words and liked her viewpoints. The medical profession was less enthusiastic. Although more patients was the last thing she was seeking, and her cheques for articles were signed over to the hospital, there were physicians who believed she should confine her literary talents to medical dissertations on the menopause—a subject on which she had done considerable research. Dr. Minerva Reid, the Grand Old Lady of Women’s College Hospital, told her sadly, “You have broken my heart and demeaned your gift.”

Marion Hilliard can’t see that she’s demeaned her gift or her profession. She maintains that women have a right to know the truth about themselves, and doctors are not a race apart from their patients. But she’s finished with journalism just the same.

“I have a great sense of the timing of things,” she explained recently. “I don’t think that at my age you suddenly rush into another line of work just because it’s exciting.”

Instead, she thinks she may head for Africa or Egypt or India in a couple of years, and offer her medical experience where it’s most needed. Friends see her a sort of female Brock Chisholm, using up some of that fantastic energy for an organization like the United Nations.

It appears she may end up teaching and preaching after all. it