Gallery of the Portuguese Pioneers’ Physician’s Bag

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Melba Costa’s
Physician’s Bag

Worn black leather bag with golden letters “M.J.E.” stitched on one side & a broken stethoscope.

Audio caption

Gilberto Fernandes
Click for Gallery of the Portuguese Pioneers’ page

Melba Dias Costa

Melba Dias Costa was born in Lourenço Marques (present-day Maputo), Mozambique, on May 26 (year unknown), into a family of Goan-Portuguese settlers. After completing her medical degree at the Faculty of Medicine in the University of Lisbon in 1940, she worked as an assistant to Professor Francisco Gentil, the founder of the Portuguese Institute of Oncology. Costa continued her studies at the Sorbonne University in Paris, where she specialized in gynaecology. 

In 1950, Costa moved to Luanda, Angola, where she became the only practicing female doctor in the country. Five years later, she began working for the World Health Organization in India, until 1959, when she returned to Portugal.

A progressive woman, Dr. Costa became a person of interest to the PIDE, the dictatorship’s political police, which regularly surveilled and harassed her. This included denying her passage to Angola, and escorting her out of a train to Spain and a plane to the United Kingdom when she tried to travel abroad. In 1961, she was allowed to travel to the Roswell Park Memorial Institute of Buffalo to do oncological research with a Fulbright Foundation grant.

Sometime later, Dr. Costa decided to immigrate to Canada, settling in Toronto.  In 1963, she opened up her own practice on College Street and Manning Avenue. Devoted to her work and patients – many of them Portuguese – it was common for Dr. Costa to take frequent trips to the hospital to visit her patients in the morning, then follow up with them in their homes in the evening. She retired in 1981. 

In June of 1990, Dr. Costa was awarded the Order of Merit by the Government of Portugal.  She passed away on May 12, 2007.

Dr. Costa was married to the engineer Fernando Barreto e Costa – president of the Portuguese Canadian Congress in 1970. The couple had two children, Fernando and Motilal. 

Melba Dias Costa receiving the Order of Merit from a Portuguese government official, June 1990. Courtesy of the Gallery of the Portuguese Pioneers.