A tobacco tycoon and influential philanthropist, Sir Mortimer B. Davis (1866–1928) was a generous patron with wide influence in the Jewish community during the early 20th century. As head of Imperial Tobacco, Davis supported a variety of Jewish institutions, from the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) to the Jewish General Hospital (JGH), which today bears his name.
Born to Jewish immigrants, Davis developed his business skills in his father’s company, S. Davis and Sons, the city’s largest cigar factory. As president of the American Tobacco Company of Canada, Davis consolidated Canada’s cigar industry by the turn of the century. Merging Ritchie Cigarettes with the Imperial Tobacco Company of England, he became founder and president of the Imperial Tobacco Company of Canada Ltd, and played prominent roles in the Royal Bank of Canada, Empire Tobacco, and the Henry Corby Distillery. In 1916, the “tobacco king” was the first Canadian Jew to be knighted, in recognition for having equipped a full division of Canadian forces during World War l.
Davis’s marriage to Henriette Marie Meyer, the first Lady Davis, ended in the 1920s when he met Eleanor Callaghan, an Irish manicurist. In order to resolve the disparities in their statuses, Davis reportedly hired an Italian count to briefly marry and divorce Callaghan, enabling Davis to marry a divorced countess.
An influential philanthropist, Davis financially supported many organizations, including the Talmud Torah traditional Jewish schools, despite not being Orthodox, and the Baron de Hirsch Institute, while helping to create the Canadian Jewish Congress. He was active in the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of Montreal and the Federation of Zionist Societies of Canada, financed settlement projects in Palestine, and coordinated the Canadian Jewish Committee for the Relief of War Sufferers. In 1926, convinced of the importance of the YMHA, Davis donated a building on Mount Royal Avenue to house the centre. The “Davis Y” opened shortly after his death in 1928. Once lauded by S. W. Jacobs as “the most important Jew in Canada,” Davis was honoured with one of the largest funerals in the history of Montreal’s Jewish community.
Davis also funded the Sir Mortimer B. Davis Mount Sinai Hospital (Montreal’s first Jewish hospital, which served as a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients) in 1909, and the Herzl Dispensary (predecessor to the Jewish General Hospital), which began providing affordable health care in 1912. The first Lady Davis had similarly financed hospitals (the JGH Medical Research Institute is named after her), and helped Jewish European scholars find sanctuary in Canada. In his will, Davis allocated 75 percent of his estate to construct a Jewish public hospital, specifying a fifty-year delay until the endowment had sufficiently grown. In 1978, the JGH substantially expanded its services as the renamed Sir Mortimer B. Davis - Jewish General Hospital in recognition of a ten million dollar bequest.
Compiled by Marian Pinsky.
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*Images Courtesy of McCord Museum, Jewish General Hospital Archives, and the Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee National Archives.