Transgender Awareness Week #TransWk: Thursday’s hero(es)
The first half of today’s hero is Laurence Michael Dillon, a British physician and the first transman to undergo phalloplasty.
Michael lived an extraordinary life. He was second in line, after his brother, to the Baronetcy of Lismullen in Ireland; he graduated from Oxford University (as a woman in the 1930s – no mean feat in itself); he worked as a garage mechanic whilst transitioning; he returned to University in Dublin to study medicine; he went to sea with the Merchant Navy; he was a published author; and he ended his days in Tibet as a Buddhist monk.
Michael is not just remarkable for his own story and for undergoing pioneering surgery, but, as a physician, he carried out an inguinal orchiectomy on his friend, Roberta Cowell, who was transitioning from male to female. At the time, the procedure was illegal in the United Kingdom and Michael was taking a big professional risk performing it.
Through a quirk of fate, Michael was lucky enough to meet up with the great Sir Harold Gillies, famous for his pioneering plastic surgery and rehabilitation work with First World War soldiers. Sir Harold is the second half of today’s hero. It was Gillies who performed Michael’s phalloplasty using a technique that is still in use today.
Gillies also performed the first vaginaplasty in 1951, with the assistance of the American surgeon Ralph Millard, on Roberta Cowell who he met through Michael.
Without the vision and compassion of brilliant men like Sir Harold Gillies, and the bravery and willingness of transpeople like Michael and Roberta to put their bodies on the line to advance the science, the treatment of transgender and transsexual men and women would not be as advanced as it is.
Michael’s story and its strange intertwining with that of Roberta Cowell, who would become the first British transwoman to receive male-to-female sex reassignment surgery and whose private life is as adventurous as Michael’s, is told in the very readable “The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution” by Pagan Kennedy.