Abraham Isaac Willinsky (1885-1976) was born 29 March1885, in Omaha, Nebraska to Sarah Rebecca (née Vise) and Myer Lionel Willinsky. Sarah had immigrated to Canada as a child in the 1860s; the Myers family was originally from Lithuania. Abraham had seven siblings: Abey (b. 1885), Ida (b. 1886), Faly (b. 1888), Minnie (b. 1890), Gertrude (b. 1893), Lila (b. 1899) and Bernard (“Bunny”) (b. 1900). Willinsky’s family moved to the east end of Toronto in 1890 where his father worked as a merchant
Most of Abraham's siblings eventually married: Ida married Maurice Kamman in 1909; Faly married Sam Mehr in 1912; Minnie married Arthur Jacobs in 1912; Gertrude married Sam Kronick in 1912; Lila married Jospeh Lisson in 1920; and Bernard married Florence Samuel in 1930, but divorced soon after.
When Willinsky was a child he helped his uncle, Solomon Vise, in his photography business, which was located at 439 King Street East. Working in his uncle's darkroom and studio on Saturdays awakened Willinsky's interest in photography.
Willinsky graduated from biological and physical sciences at the University of Toronto in 1906, and from medicine in 1908, earning the George Brown Memorial Scholarship. He married Sadie Dobensky, from Bancroft, Ontario, in July of 1911. They had three children: Dorothy, Jack, and Myra. Dorothy eventually married Garfield Cass and worked as a social worker. Jack married Cecily Samuel and became a urologist and, later, a radiologist. Myra married Dr. N. Simon, a dental surgeon.
As one of the early Jewish doctors in Toronto, Willinsky initially had difficulty launching his career due to discrimination and prejudice. After joining the Academy of Medicine in 1910, he began his first practice as a “lodge doctor”, working out of his office and home at College and Henry Streets.
With other possible internships and appointments denied him, A. I. accumulated his early clinical training with resourcefulness, by performing “ghost-surgery” and by studying abroad in Dublin at the Rotunda Hospital, Paris and Vienna. In 1916, under the adopted name of Wills, and with a claim to Greek Orthodoxy, Willinsky managed to secure a position at the Polyclinic in New York, where he began as an ambulance doctor. He also interned at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. His skill was, in time, recognized in Toronto and he was accepted at the Toronto Western Hospital in 1918, where he pioneered spinal anaethesia and began his work as a urologist. In 1923, Willinsky became a fellow of the American College of Surgeons. In 1925, all forty practicing Jewish physicians formed the Toronto Jewish Medical Association. In turn, the same members would become the staff of Mount Sinai Hospital, which was established in 1923 at 100 Yorkville Avenue.
Willinsky was probably the most prominent of Mount Sinai’s original staff, dividing his time between the new Jewish hospital and Toronto Western, where he was the head of genito-urinary surgery. He became chief of surgery at Mount Sinai and produced a number of papers that dealt primarily with spinal anaesthesia. He later opened a practice at 316 Bloor Street West, above which he temporarily resided. In 1928, he set up a clinic and office at 569 Spadina Avenue. His practice remained at this location until his retirement.
Throughout his life, he remained enthralled by photography and prolific in his production of travel movies. In 1934, he became a founding member of the Toronto Amateur Movie Club. Around this same time, he created films to help Holy Blossom fundraise for a new building. In 1941, he gave a lecture on the principles of amateur moviemaking before the Royal Canadian Institute, in which he advocated holding the movie camera steady and letting the action move into the frame as a strategy to encourage careful composition. For sound in his early movies, he played records bought in the country where the picture was taken, stacking them in order and playing them at intervals during the commentary. Later on, he manufactured his own gramophone records, and eventually, bona fide soundtracks. Often shooting as much as 3600 feet of film on a single trip, he tended, in his more senior years, to invest long hours editing and framing sequences in the basement of his own home at 120 Madison Avenue. Here, he set up a miniature theatre and often held film evenings for friends. In 1945, Willinsky won an award for a medical film, Cystometrography, in which he used the animation technique of filming drawings. Aortography and advances in X-ray technology provided other cross-overs between medical and filmic experiments, and most of his chronicled travels were the extra-curricular benefits of regular attendance at medical conferences.
Towards the end of his life in 1960, Willinsky dictated the stories for A Doctor’s Memoirs to his transcriber, Margaret Avison. He spent the last 14 years of his life at Toronto's Jewish Home for the Aged and Baycrest Hospital. He passed away in 1976 at the age of ninety-one.
Film reels were originally collected and created by Dr. A. I. Willinsky and, in 1987, donated to the Ontario Jewish Archives by his grandson, Mr. Michael Simon
Scope and Content
Fonds consists of amateur films created by Dr. Willinsky. The majority of the films are travelogues documenting Dr. Willinsky's various trips to countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America with his wife. Also included are three reels of family home movies and one documentary, "The Coronation Tree," illustrating the construction and move of Toronto's Holy Blossom Synagogue to its Bathurst Street location. Most films have soundtracks consisting of music and Dr. Willinsky's commentary as well as captions.
Accession originally consisted of 81 reels of a varied selection of films, mostly commercial American-made and distributed short documentaries, travelogues, newsreels and cartoons. Commercial films, films in poor condition, films identified as interim production elements, and those that were unidentifiable have been culled. In addition, four magnetic sound tracks that were digitized were culled since their contents are available in a more accessible and stable format.
Quotes for the remaining digitization work have been obtained and are available here: G:\Conservation&preservation\Film Conservation and Preservation\Willinsky and Zaldin Digitization Quotes from Creative Post.doc
Additional reference and archival DVD copies of some films are stored on shelf 36-4.