Dr. Avinoam Chernick, a pioneering obstetrician gynecologist and sex and relationship therapist, died May 8 in London, Ont. He was 88.
Chernick, who went by Noam, fought for women’s rights his entire life. In the 1990s he was one of a handful of doctors in London who would perform abortions, which led to both his family home and clinic being targeted.
“The crazies came out and we were picketed, our house was picketed, every day for over a year. About 20 people, one hour, every day. Can you imagine what you could do with the person power of that, to do something good in the world?” said Chernick’s wife, Dr. Beryl Chernick, who was also his partner in his medical and therapy practices.
In the mid-1990s, multiple doctors who performed abortions in the United States and Canada were shot—including one, Barnett Slepian of Buffalo, N.Y., who was killed in his home by a sniper. As a result, Chernick made sure to take extreme caution to protect himself and his family from a similar fate.
“Before it was dark, all the blinds would go down, everything would be closed up. Noam was excessively careful in trying to make sure that things were safe around the house. It was a horrible thing,” said Beryl.
Eventually, however, the clinics that were being targeted pushed for an injunction against the protesters, so they couldn’t picket within 500 metres of the doctors’ homes. Once the injunction came down and forced the picketers to the end of the block, the protests stopped, and the Chernicks no longer had to live in fear. However, according to Beryl, they had already taken a toll on Chernick, as she believes his eventual heart issues stemmed at least in part from the stress of the situation.
Chernick also championed many other causes related to sexual and reproductive issues, including contraception, menopause, and the right for fathers to be present in the delivery room for the birth of their child. Perhaps most notably, he co-founded the Sexual Assault Examination Centre at St. Joseph’s Hospital in London, along with Dr. William Hyndman.
Together, they coordinated experts from the fields of policing, medicine, and social work to make sure the experience of victims was both as compassionate and effective as possible. Chernick also arranged funding for and created a video teaching new staff members how to help their patients and collect the necessary samples with respect and care.
Chernick’s eldest daughter, Elisheva, recognized the characteristic trait that defined her father’s approach to his practice. Her father “was doing patient-centred care when nobody even used the term yet. He was ahead of his time,” Beryl said.
Chernick was born in 1935 in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine, to Sarah and Alec Chernick. His parents had attended the same high school in Winnipeg, but they only met in Palestine in 1933. Chernick’s sister Lili was born shortly after him, and then the whole family moved back to Winnipeg in 1940 for a short time.
They soon moved to Toronto because Chernick’s father got a job with the Toronto Transit Commission. He was an engineer who both helped build the sea wall in Tel Aviv and designed the Union Station curve at the south end of Toronto’s main subway line.
In high school, Chernick was the president of the Oakwood Collegiate orchestra, in which he played the flute, and was also a member of the school’s award-winning a cappella choir. The flute remained his love, an instrument he played up until two weeks before his death, his obituary noted.
Chernick and Beryl first met at Camp Massad in Muskoka in the summer of 1953. They got married in 1958, when they were both attending the University of Western Ontario in Beryl’s hometown of London. After graduating, they spent six months in Winston-Salem, N.C. where they studied relationships, and a year in Philadelphia, where they studied sexual medicine. Eventually they moved back to London, where they found their services were in high demand.
“We came back, and we were flooded with patients, absolutely. All our colleagues just were waiting to send people to us,” said Beryl. “Patients were being referred to us a lot, they were just waiting [to see us].”
From there, the Chernicks soon got invited to speak about their area of expertise. They gave presentations to university and medical departments, to classes, and to public audiences. They also published scientific articles together and made relationship therapy films. The couple were considered trailblazers at the time, willing to speak about and support issues that they believed were important but were frozen out of polite discourse.
“Certainly, at that time, people were not aware. People were very anxious,” said Beryl. “We debunked a lot of the anxiety-provoking myths about sexuality. Our speaking and teaching, we regarded it as the preventive medicine aspect of our work, to help people feel comfortable with who they were, what they were doing, and how they were doing it.”
Outside of a professional context, Chernick was known for his love of music, his sense of humour, and his love of children.
“As a father, he was great. Supportive of his kids in every way,” said Beryl. “He took each of his kids to the hospital. Each of them served as his ‘resident.’ They might be six years old, but he told the nurses, I’m bringing my resident in with me. And he would leave them to look at the babies in the nursery.”
The Chernicks have been a staple at Congregation Or Shalom in London for years. Rabbi Catharine Clark, who has worked there since 2012, said Chernick was known for the joy he brought to the community, especially in his role as a gabbai.
“He was so knowledgeable, so committed to the congregation and to Judaism,” she said. “I’m going to miss him; he was a good person. He was a pillar of our community. It’s not going to be the same without him.”
Chernick is survived by his wife Beryl; daughters Elisheva, Yonina, and Aviva; his sister Lili and his grandchildren.