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Joan Hollobon celebrates her 100th birthday at Kensington Gardens Nursing Home in Toronto in January, 2020.

In the early days of her medical reporting career, in the late 1950s, Joan Hollobon was sent to interview a prominent physician at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. The doctor was reluctant but felt obligated because the hospital was launching a fundraising campaign.

The eminent surgeon, like many of his generation, believed it was beneath him to speak to a lowly journalist, especially a woman. So he simply handed her a page of “facts” he felt should be printed in the paper and walked away.

“In those days, Canadian scientists and doctors considered it virtually unethical to talk to the press at all,” Ms. Hollobon later recalled. She soon learned the condescension was redoubled for women.

Ms. Hollobon was undeterred and, over the next three decades, would become Canada’s pre-eminent medical reporter. She won over medical professionals, and got all the interviews she wanted, with a mix of tenacity, accuracy, impressive research skills and no small measure of pigheadedness.

The long-time reporter also helped usher in an era when medical stories became a mainstay of daily journalism, driven by an explosion of scientific advances and burgeoning public interest. The haughty surgeon would become one of her biggest fans.

Ms. Hollobon’s career as The Globe and Mail’s medical reporter spanned from 1959 to 1985, and she covered everything from the birth of medicare through to the first heart transplant, deinstitutionalization of psychiatric patients, eradication of smallpox, the advent of the deadly HIV-AIDS pandemic and so much more.

Ms. Hollobon was also part of a small cadre of driven women who faced down misogyny and smashed glass ceilings in Canada’s newsrooms, moving from writing treacly copy for the women’s pages to dominating the front pages.

Such was her mastery of the craft and her knowledge of medicine and the health system that, when she retired, the Canadian Medical Association awarded Ms. Hollobon its Medal of Honour and, in the citation, called her “one of medicine’s greatest allies.”

Ms. Hollobon was also made an officer of the Order of Canada at age 99, with the commendation stating she embodied “scientific journalism excellence” and played a leading role in combatting sexist stereotypes about women in the profession.

“When I started as a summer reporter in 1974, there were only a handful of women reporters and Joan was the star,” recalled Sylvia Stead, a former editor who worked at The Globe and Mail for 49 years. “She was a role model to young journalists with her fearless interviewing and reporting skills.”

Joan May Hollobon was born on Jan. 29, 1920, in Seaview on the Isle of Wight, England, at the tail end of the Spanish flu pandemic. She died on Apr. 3 in Toronto at the age of 104, as the COVID-19 pandemic wound down.

She grew up and attended school in Rhyl, Wales, and always had an intense interest in reading and writing. As a young adult, during the Second World War, Ms. Hollobon volunteered as a press officer with the British Red Cross. After the war she moved to Berlin, working as a secretary for the Allied Control Commission.

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Ms. Hollobon’s career as The Globe and Mail’s medical reporter spanned from 1959 to 1985, and when she retired, the Canadian Medical Association awarded her its Medal of Honour, calling her 'one of medicine’s greatest allies.'The Globe and Mail

Shortly after her mother’s death from bone cancer in 1948, Ms. Hollobon travelled to Canada, working briefly at Reader’s Digest in Montreal before returning home. She struggled to find work as journalist in a profession that was very much a boys’ club. She was so discouraged that she considered becoming a Salvation Army missionary.

Instead, in 1952, Ms. Hollobon made the fateful decision to immigrate to Canada. On April Fool’s Day, she boarded the ship the Queen Elizabeth, determined, by hook or by crook, to become an ink-stained wretch across the pond.

Her first stop in Canada was a visit to The Globe and Mail newsroom, where she met Kenneth MacTaggart, the paper’s medical reporter and famed foreign correspondent.

With Mr. MacTaggart’s help, Ms. Hollobon landed a job in Northern Ontario, at the Kirkland Lake Northern News. She toiled there for two years, earning the princely sum of $30 a week, before jumping to the Daily Nugget in North Bay, and then landing her dream job at The Globe and Mail in 1956.

For three years, she was a general assignment reporter, often writing for the women’s pages. When The Globe’s medical reporter took an education leave in 1959, she stepped in temporarily – and remained on the beat for a quarter century.

At every stop, the pattern was the same: Ms. Hollobon would be hired to cover social news for the women’s page and then muscle her way into meatier assignments by working twice as hard as the men.

On her first day at The Globe and Mail, Ms. Hollobon was assigned to a desk that featured a sturdy old oak chair. This is an important detail because, in newsrooms, fights over chairs are the stuff of legend.

Ms. Hollobon stubbornly held on to that oak chair for her entire career, through various renovations and moves, and it was gifted to her when she reluctantly retired. (In 1985, there was still a mandatory retirement age of 65. To blunt the pain of leaving, the paper gave her an all-expenses-paid trip to the Galapagos Islands.)

If Ms. Hollobon was able to hang on to that chair, and excel as a woman on the medical beat, it was in no small part because she was as intimidating as she was driven, with the bark and blunt delivery of a sergeant-major.

“Joan came off as gruff. A lot of people were scared of her,” said Andy Visser-deVries, her longtime friend and, in recent years, her primary caregiver. “But, once you got to know her, you realized just how kind and generous she was.”

Ms. Hollobon also had a playful side; she loved speeding around in her bright red convertible MGB sports car, and doting on her dog and cats.

For many years, she lived with Kay Rex, another feminist trailblazer and Globe and Mail reporter, who literally wrote the book on the history of women in Canadian journalism (she wrote a history of the Canadian Women’s Press Club).

Contrary to rumours, however, they were not a couple. Rather, just two single, professional women who could not afford to buy a home without pooling their resources.

Mr. Visser-deVries met Ms. Hollobon when he was hired as the executive director of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association in 1991. (She was one of the founders of the CSWA in 1971, and remained involved as a volunteer for many years.)

“We had an immediate connection because she reminded me of my mother. Like my mom, Joan always spoke her mind,” he said with a laugh. When Ms. Hollobon moved into Kensington Gardens, a nursing home, she gifted her oak chair to Mr. Visser-deVries.

Ms. Hollobon was a workaholic and incredibly prolific, often filing several stories a day throughout her years on the beat. But she is best remembered for some blockbuster assignments.

In 1962, she covered the bitter 23-day Saskatchewan doctors’ strike and then produced a 10-part series, “Bungle, Truce and Trouble,” that remains the definitive account of the watershed moment in the creation of Canadian medicare.

In 1967, Ms. Hollobon checked herself into the maximum security unit of the Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Penetanguishene, Ont., where she lived around-the-clock for four days because she wanted to witness psychiatric treatment first-hand. The four-part series she wrote, “Behind the Bars on Ward G” was chilling and award-winning. Ms. Hollobon would say later that it was the assignment that left the most lasting impact on her life.

(Some of the inmates she featured in the story kept in touch for years. Many years later, one of the men stole her car and embezzled thousands of dollars from her bank account, but she refused to press charges.)

In 1972, Ms. Hollobon wrote a groundbreaking three-part series on the first gender-reassignment surgery in Canada, a topic that remains controversial to this day. Those articles won the first CSWA prize for outstanding medical journalism, which included a cash award of $1,000.

Shortly afterward, The Globe’s editor-in-chief received a letter and another $1,000 from an anonymous reader who wanted to thank Ms. Hollobon for her stellar work, and urged her to use the money to attend a medical conference of her choice. She did.

But Ms. Hollobon was so touched by the gesture that, for the rest of her career, every year she sent $1,000 to an up-and-coming health or science journalist, with only one condition – that they not speak of her generosity.

After her retirement, Ms. Hollobon continued to write, including a book, The Lion’s Tale: A History of Wellesley Hospital 1912-1987, which was shortlisted for the Toronto Book Awards. She also served on the boards of a number of health care organizations.

Among her many honours, Ms. Hollobon was awarded the Sandford Fleming Medal for excellence in science communication by the Royal Canadian Institute for Science. Despite having only a high-school education, she was awarded the Sloan-Rockefeller Fellowship in Advanced Science Writing to study at Columbia University in New York. Her application included a glowing letter of recommendation from Dr. Charles Best, the co-discoverer of insulin.

The National Newspaper Awards, Canada’s top journalism awards competition for newspapers and digital publications, also named one of its prizes in her honour. Unveiling the Joan Hollobon Prize for Beat Reporting, the NNAs’ board of governors said “Joan set a standard for what beat reporting should be.”

An only child, Ms. Hollobon was predeceased by her mother, Alice Ford, and her father, Ernest Hollobon, a British Army officer who later became an Anglican vicar.

Ms. Hollobon never married and didn’t have children.

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