Obituary: There will never be another ‘Doctor Joe’

Dr. Joe Greenberg died April 10 at the age of 94

Lynn Factor did not use an obstetrician for the birth of her children. Nor did she need a pediatrician. There was only one doctor for her, and that was Dr. Joe Greenberg.

Greenberg, who died April 10 at age 94, knew Factor from her teen years. He delivered her three children and looked after them as well. When they were sick, he made house calls, Factor recalled. “He always made himself available.”

Her oldest child, Nicole Pollack, 28, said she could call “Dr. Joe” any time of the day. “He always answered the phone… He cared so much about your life… We were very close.”

The two women were the first people to arrive at Holy Blossom Temple for Greenberg’s funeral April 14. More than 1,400 people packed the sanctuary to bid farewell to this unique family physician, aptly called “the one-of-a-kind, real-life Marcus Welby of Toronto” by his daughter, Sara Zagdanski.

In a moving eulogy, Zagdanski spoke of her father’s devotion to his family and his medical practice. “Dr. Joe revelled in that role of doing for others… he could not say ‘no’ to anybody…

“Tears defined our dad. He was strong and vulnerable, and that made him so suited to being a doctor.”

What set Greenberg apart from other physicians was that house calls remained a routine part of his work, at a time when most family physicians had pretty well abandoned the practice.

His son, Dr. David Greenberg – the two shared an office for 22 years – said his father kept many patients out of nursing homes through these house calls. “By his count, 200 patients were managed at home.”

He joked that some things his father did for patients went beyond the scope of medicine, like “buying groceries, finding them jobs and making some ill-suited matrimonial matches.”


But he also pointed out that his father spent most nights poring over medical journals to stay up-to-date. “Dad loved medicine. He was on call 24/7. Nothing made him happier.”

In addition to his general practice, Greenberg was the physician for the Toronto Maple Leaf baseball team and for some professional boxers, Zagdanski said.

“He was in the corner with George Chuvalo, Clyde Gray and others for seven world championship fights.

In 1981, he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.”

Greenberg also left a downtown legacy for Torontonians. He and his brother, Mort, restored their childhood synagogue, the Shaarei Tzedec Congregation, commonly known as the Markham Street Shul.

The brothers raised funds to preserve the shul as a way of honouring their parents.

He wanted to create a place where everyone would feel welcome, David Greenberg explained. “So many people feel comfortable there.”

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Greenberg never left the downtown core. His home and practice were just four blocks from Major Street, his childhood haunt.

Zagdanski said her father’s daily routine began with hospital rounds. Afterwards he drove his four children to United Synagogue Day School (now Robbins Hebrew Academy), and then he spent mornings doing house calls.

Office hours were in the afternoon. There was no secretary. Greenberg answered his own phone, and nobody was ever refused an appointment, Zagdanski said, noting that the waiting room was always full, but his patients enjoyed conversing with each other.

Greenberg’s parents, Aaron and Sime, Russian immigrants, moved to Canada with their three daughters. Greenberg, the oldest of their three sons, was their first child born in Canada.

His foray into medicine was somewhat serendipitous. He had actually dropped out of school in Grade 10 and went to work. When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the air force and became a sergeant major. Military personnel encouraged Greenberg to take college entrance exams after the war. One of his friends applied to medical school at the University of Toronto, and Greenberg casually followed his lead. He graduated in 1952.

David Greenberg said his father delivered more than 3,000 babies, and over the years, he received hundreds of bar and bat mitvah and wedding invitations.

He was invited, but too frail to attend Pollack’s wedding in March.

She called Greenberg two weeks before the wedding to follow up with the invitation. “When he heard my voice, he started to cry, and I started to cry.”

He opened the invitation while she was on the phone. “He said, ‘Oh my God, my baby girl is getting married.’ It was a very special moment.

“I’m so glad I reached out to him… There will never be another doctor like Dr. Joe.”

Greenberg leaves his wife, Pepi, four children and their spouses, and 11 grandchildren.