There were two sides to Wendell Watters, the prominent Hamilton psychiatrist, family and sex therapist, academic and keen amateur photographer. As an intellectual, he was ferocious. A contrarian and a committed humanist, Watters thrived on fervent arguments about the importance of a woman’s right to choose, the psychological damage organized religion could cause in the name of God, and the “human obscenity” of people killing each other in warfare.
About six feet tall with a shock of wavy grey hair, he was a bear-like man with a loud voice, a booming laugh and a belly that grew larger with the decades. Back in the days when he was frequently writing letters to the editor demanding a repeal of the abortion laws, his wife, Lena, who regularly took her three children to church, received a visit from her minister.
“I’m really sorry for you that your husband is the way he is,” the clergyman said, perhaps anticipating a tearful confession about her wifely burdens. Ever gracious, she responded politely before showing him the door, and never crossed the threshold of a church again.
Underneath Watters’s tough, often curmudgeonly, exterior beat a generous and empathetic heart. “He was a contrarian but a loving contrarian. There wasn’t a hateful thing about him,” said psychiatrist Bernard (Bernie) Trossman, describing his former colleague as “very helpful to students, an excellent mentor and a feminist.”
Born into poverty and raised as an Anglican in paternalistic and colonial Canada in a community riven with sectarian strife, Watters had taken the smart boy’s route to a better life – attending medical school on a veteran’s allowance – but he never forgot where he had come from and how lives could be beaten down by repressive cultural and religious attitudes.
After Watters died at 88 of complications from diabetes on Aug. 17 in Penticton, B.C., his family received letters from relatives detailing how he had quietly and effectively intervened at moments of crisis or hardship, resolving difficult situations without ever claiming credit or recompense.
Thirty-five years ago, when Watters published his best known book, Compulsory Parenthood: The Truth about Abortion, the sentence for performing an abortion in Canada was life in prison, with the patient facing up to two years behind bars. The only legal way a woman could terminate an unwanted pregnancy was to present herself before an abortion committee at an accredited hospital – no matter how distant from her home or how philosophically opposed the institution might be to the procedure – and persuade a majority of the members that continuing the pregnancy would endanger her life or her sanity. Even getting a hearing within the first trimester was like winning a telephone lottery.
“He was a wonderful man,” said Morris Manning, the criminal lawyer who called Watters as a defence witness in abortion provider Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s criminal trials in Ontario in the 1980s and later used that testimony as the basis for his successful constitutional challenge of the abortion law before the Supreme Court in 1988.
“He had an in-depth knowledge of the system as it was working or, shall I say, not working,” said Manning, “and he had impeccable credentials based on his knowledge not only of psychiatry but also of the desperate situation that women [with unwanted pregnancies] were in… and he did his best to see that the committee system provision of the criminal code was done away with because he believed that it was causing psychological harm to the women and putting tremendous pressure on the hospitals and the physicians.”
Manning knew Watters as a founding member of Doctors for the Repeal of the Abortion Law (DRAL) and a key player in its broader-based affiliate, Canadians for the Repeal of the Abortion Law, but the two men also became friends and talked about their personal lives. “Like many people who have rough beginnings, he did his best to see that other people didn’t go through the same kinds of trauma,” said Manning, adding that “almost everybody I met during the time I was working on the [Morgentaler] case had a story to tell about a sister or a mother or a daughter who was affected by what I called the terrorism of the system. He was a very compassionate man.
Wendell Wallace Watters was born Oct. 1, 1923, near Fredericton. One of three children of Herbert and Ola (née Regina) Watters, he grew up in a treacherous era spiked with alarming newspaper accounts from the Spanish Civil War, Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia and Nazi Germany’s takeover of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Religion and war – both of which he would come to abhor – collided for him when he was not quite 16. He was attending a provincial conference of the Anglican Young Person’s Association early in September, 1939, and about to go into a church service when another participant, who had been listening to the radio, told him that England and France had declared war on Germany.
Too young to enlist, he finished high school, spent a year at teacher’s college and taught briefly in a one-room schoolhouse on the Nashwaak River before joining the announcing staff at CFNB in Fredericton – his moniker was Graveyard Gus because he had the early morning shift. He was rejected twice by the RCAF – once because he was underweight – before being accepted into the fledgling Canadian air force in June, 1943.
After earning his navigator’s wings and the nickname Windy, he was shipped to India in November, 1944, as a navigator on B-24 Liberators, an American designed and manufactured heavy bomber.
He mostly flew operations against Japanese military installations and bridges in Burma, Thailand and Malaya and was not involved in anything like the carpet bombing of German or Japanese cities, but he confessed in an unpublished memoir that he was “seriously disturbed” about his role in the Second World War for “many years,” mourning the lives he had destroyed and asking why he had survived when friends had been killed.
Back in Canada, he used his veterans’ benefits to get an undergraduate degree at the University of New Brunswick and to study medicine at Dalhousie in Halifax. That’s where he met and married surgical nurse Lena Robertson in 1952, the year before he graduated with his MD. For the next four years, he worked as a general practitioner for the RCAF at its station in Greenwood, N.S. In 1957, the Watters family moved to Montreal where he did post-graduate training in psychiatry at McGill, completed the training program at the Canadian Institute of Psychoanalysis, worked on staff at the Montreal General Hospital and taught in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill.
He rarely talked to friends and family about his own early life – his father committed suicide when Watters was a teenager – or the effects of his war experience. Some of his colleagues suggest he talked himself out in psychoanalysis – a form of psychiatry he later rejected as too orthodox. Others say the traumas were too profound and he preferred to look outward and concentrate on helping others.
Psychiatrist Nathan (Nate) Epstein recruited Watters as part of a cadre of Montreal practitioners he took with him in 1967 to the neophyte Faculty of Medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton. One of his first jobs was heading up the clinical unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he “soon got into trouble with the nuns,” according to Bernard Trossman, because “he was an early supporter of Dr. Morgentaler and involved in DRAL and CARAL and a friend of [pro-choice activist] Norma Scarborough.” He began to be interested in community psychiatry and how society influences people and that, according to Trossman, steered him away from psychoanalysis, with its emphasis on the individual.
Watters’s decision to move into couples and sex therapy began at least partly because of his work supervising John Lamont, an Ontario-educated doctor who had spent a year in Philadelphia training as a therapist. Lamont felt he “needed more advice from a senior person” before he started practising on his own.
“He was so well trained,” Lamont recalled in a telephone interview. “He had a multitude of skills from his training at McGill in terms of how to do counselling and therapy and I brought in the issue of sexuality because I had trained in gynecology and obstetrics as well.”
Out of that supervision, the sexuality clinic evolved at McMaster in the mid-1970s. They were soon joined by other key physicians, including May Cohen, a family doctor (and later associate dean of health services at McMaster) whom Watters knew because they were both pro-choice activists and members of DRAL.
“The sexual therapy he did with couples at McMaster involved the idea that religion in general and Christianity specifically were detrimental to people’s health because of guilt,” said Walt Michalsky, a former high-school English teacher who became a close friend through the Human-ist Movement. “Wendell realized that religion was both good and bad depending on how you applied it. It wasn’t religion itself that is so poisonous it is the application of it and the unwillingness to let go of ideas and ideals.”
Becoming a humanist was a natural evolution for a man who loved to debate and believed implicitly in free choice and the strength of ideas. He published many papers on religion and humanism and the polemic, Deadly Doctrine: Health, Illness and Christian God-Talk (1992). As he aged, Watters became fascinated by photography, spending weekends with friends and colleagues on tramps through the countryside shooting landscape, flowers and birds. Watters retired from McMaster in the mid-1980s and two decades later moved with his wife to Penticton, B.C., joining his severely disabled son Derek, who had contracted a virulent form of rheumatoid arthritis in his late teens, and his younger daughter Elizabeth, a family practice physician.
Wendell Watters, who was predeceased by his son Derek, leaves his wife, two daughters and seven grandchildren.