The History of Gender Dysphoria
Sir Harold Gilles was one of the pioneers of sex change surgery. In 1946 he performed
surgery on the UKs first male-female transsexual Roberta Cowell.
For many years his home was at 71 Frognal, in the heart of London's Hampstead village.
A blue plaque on the front of that house now commemorates his life and work.
Pioneering sex reassignment surgery
In 1946, he and a colleague carried out one of the first sex reassignment surgery
from female to male on a young aristocrat, Michael Dillon. Michael Dillon is also
believed to be the first woman to have taken the male hormone testosterone in order
to look like a man. Within months of starting testosterone, he had grown a beard
and was living as a man. It was the dramatic transition in his appearance that finally
persuaded Gillies to operate.
Five years after the first sex reassignment surgery on Michael Dillon, Gillies and
colleagues performed one of first modern sex reassignment surgery from male to female
using a flap technique on Roberta Cowell, which became the standard for 40 years.
On May 15th, 1951 Robert Cowell became Roberta Cowell the United Kingdom's first
full surgically altered transsexual.
Robert was examined by two gynaecologists, two GPs, a professor of anatomy and an
endocrinologist. Their conclusion - they were amazed not that Robert was so feminine,
but that such a female person could seem outwardly so masculine! They discovered
an abnormal flow of female hormones in his body.
Robert had two options, the doctors suggested. To carry on unsatisfactorily as he
was or to live the rest of his life as a woman if he cared to chose to do so. So
Robert accepted that nature had originally intended him to be female. It explained
his mental and physical contradictions, and allowed him to believe his depression
had a physical reason; he was thus able to rationalise his situation to a greater
Although none of the doctors had personal knowledge of gender change from male to
female, they had often come across the female to male gender changes before, and
had assisted such changes! They suggested that the use of female hormones, breast
enhancement surgery, a face-lift and a genital operation could remove any sexual
Robert would have to fund his own operations, as the necessary specialists were
not in the then fledgling NHS. The hormones alone were extremely expensive. So Robert
started out on his great adventure - to become Roberta.
Robert became Roberta legally on May 15th, 1951 at the age of 30 years
Despite the fact he was still living mostly as a male! This caused her quite a few
day to day problems, but finally the surgeons agreed to complete the gender change
operations later that year. It was the early 1950's, when it was possible to take
immediate legal steps to re-register birth gender. Affidavits were sworn, and a
revised birth certificate was quickly issued.
Roberta Cowell’s story will have echoes for those who have any form of gender dysphoria,
and especially for all transsexuals. Many will be envious of the ease with which
her birth certificate change was allowed at the time, a state of comparative legal
bliss which continued until the notorious Rowallen/Ashley case stopped such amendments.
TS Loss of Rights
UK law altered dramatically in 1970 as a result of the divorce case between the
transsexual model, April Ashley and the late Lord Rowallen. Prior to this case,
transsexual people were able to have their birth certificates corrected following
surgery and had full legal rights. However, the only way that the judge could grant
Lord Rowallen a divorce and to avoid handing over any inheritance to his ex-wife
was to declare his wife to be legally still a man. Consequently, every other transsexual
person lost their legal rights.
The current legal situation is that the 2004 Gender Recognition Act gives the TG
community full legal rights.