Joan Hollobon’s life and daily routine as a resident at the Kensington Gardens Long Term Health Care Centre in downtown Toronto is rather quiet and inauspicious. She likes to sit in her wheelchair by the nursing station on the fourth floor during the day in order to interact with the staff and she still reads The Week, an international news magazine that provides her with a summary of recent world news and events. While she is hard of hearing, and she can’t be bothered with ‘those damn hearing aids’, she loves to welcome visitors, and reminisce about family and friends. The walls in her private room at the nursing home where she lives are covered in a rich tapestry of photos that tell her life story – photos of her parents, her grandmother, and her aunt May, and others from Joan’s career and with her friends. And then there are the photos of Achilles and Ching and Misty, her cherished German shepherd dog and her two Siamese cats that died long ago but still brighten Joan’s expression whenever she looks at them.
But make no mistake, Joan Hollobon, who will celebrate her 100th birthday in January 2020, made an outstanding contribution to the Canadian public and the medical profession’s appreciation and understanding of importance of medical science and health care in Canadian society.
In her role as medical reporter for The Globe and Mail from 1959 until her retirement in 1985, Joan Hollobon served as a pioneer in the print media to help bridge the large gap in understanding and awareness that existed between the medical profession and the general public. In a career that spanned the founding of Medicare in Canada to the early days of the AIDS pandemic, her hands-on reporting helped to foster and establish a dynamic relationship between the medical profession and the general public that we take for granted today in an age where the patient can and will question a doctor’s diagnosis and prescribed treatment, and often obtain a second opinion, or ask Dr. Google. Joan Hollobon helped to change not only the way patients and the general public approach their doctors and interact with them, but also the way doctors approach their patients and the general public and interact with them.
When Joan Hollobon was first appointed the medical reporter for The Globe and Mail in August 1959 (on an interim basis), illustrative of the time 60 years ago, editors at The Globe and Mail were less than enthusiastic about having a woman on the medical beat. But The Globe and Mail needed to replace David Spurgeon, the medical reporter for The Globe and Mail at the time who had been awarded a one year study fellowship at Columbia University in New York. Joan Hollobon had proved herself a reliable general reporter since starting at The Globe and Mail in October 1956, and so she was asked to fill in as the medical reporter for David Spurgeon for the coming year.
Armed with her newly-purchased concise medical dictionary and a steely resolve, Joan was determined to learn her craft well, if only for the one-year assignment. But when David Spurgeon returned from New York in July 1960, he was assigned to the newly-created science beat at The Globe and Mail, and Joan Hollobon became the permanent medical reporter for The Globe and Mail, a position she held for the next 26 years until her retirement in January 1985. The move to medical reporting proved auspicious, not only for Joan Hollobon, but also for the Canadian medical profession, patients, and the general public.
Looking back now in the early part of the 21st century CE, it is difficult to appreciate the overwhelming barriers women faced in the workplace in general, much less what Joan Hollobon faced as the first female medical reporter for a national Canadian daily newspaper. Women who did find work were viewed as the weaker sex, and often treated as little more than secretaries at the beck and call of men who understood they alone called the shots. But through grit and determination, and a love for her job, Joan Hollobon gained the respect of her colleagues, her editor(s)-in-chief, the medical profession, scientists, and the general public, and helped to transform the relationship between the medical profession and the general public in Canada.
Equally illustrative of the attitudes that have changed over the years were those of many Canadian physicians. Trained in the old British traditions, where physicians spoke and were not spoken to, who were served hand and foot by nurses considered second-class at best, these same physicians viewed talking to the press as dangerous, definitely “not done”, and for many, actually unethical.
On one assignment in those early days of her medical reporting career, Joan Hollobon had an interview with a surgeon specialising in orthopedic research at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto who had only agreed, reluctantly, to meet with Joan because the Hospital was in the middle of a fund-raising campaign. Upon Joan’s arrival, he handed her a half-page list of facts and considered the interview complete!
As time passed by, this doctor, like so many others in the medical profession, came to understand the value of informing the public about health and medical science and became very generous with his time sitting down and talking to science journalists.
Journalism training for most reporters 60 years ago was about “learning on the job” and that was also true for many science and medical writers – their professors were the women and men like the orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Sick Children. The opportunity to enroll as a journalism student at a School of Journalism was a rare opportunity most journalists could not afford.
What made Joan Hollobon unique as a reporter, and a medical reporter per se, was that while she had an office desk at The Globe and Mail, she was always in the field connecting and learning hands-on in order to be able to report firsthand what was important knowledge for the general public. In this age of the Internet where many people use ‘Dr Google’ to research medical diagnosis and potential cures to equip themselves in discussions with their doctors, it is difficult to appreciate the role Joan Hollobon played when it came to equipping the general public (as potential patients) with an understanding of the medical profession and their own personal health care. As the medical reporter for The Globe and Mail, Joan Hollobon opened the door for health advocacy – patient health advocacy through increased awareness, open dialogue, and a medical profession that changed the way it talked down to people into an approach that involved talking with people.
By Andy F. Visser-de Vries
To learn more about Joan Hollobon and her outstanding work in science journalism, check out the following articles:
Joan Hollobon - "It's a Fact and 30 Helen's Agree"