|Roberta Cowell in Paris in 1954|
Cowell is the first woman known to undergo sex reassignment surgery in Britain. But after a splash in the 1950s, she withdrew from public life and died in obscurity.
By Alan Cowell
June 5, 2020
Overlooked is a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times. This month we’re adding the stories of important L.G.B.T. figures.
At the height of Roberta Cowell’s celebrity status, in 1954, her face adorned the cover of Britain’s popular Picture Post magazine. When her story appeared in a newspaper, “I received 400 proposals. Some of them of marriage,” she said in an interview for The Sunday Times of London in 1972. “I could have had titles, money, the lot.”
She achieved this fame when she became the first person in her country known to have her gender reassigned from male to female. Her transition — and all of the yearnings and hopes that came with it — involved hormone treatments and surgeries despite what some regarded in strait-laced 1950s Britain as flouting contemporary laws.
“Since May 18th, 1951, I have been Roberta Cowell, female,” she pronounced in her autobiography. “I have become woman physically, psychologically, glandularly and legally.”
Yet by the time Cowell died in 2011 at 93, her voyage across the lines of gender and social norms had faded into obscurity.
|Roberta Cowell March 1954|
Cowell’s death, by contrast, went all but unremarked upon, even in Britain. Her body was found on Oct. 11, 2011, in her small apartment in southwest London by the building superintendent. A handful of friends attended her funeral, but, apparently at her request, there was no fanfare for the woman who had helped pioneer gender reassignment at a time when it was virtually taboo.
Only in 2013 — two years after her death — was her passing reported, by the British newspaper The Independent on Sunday.
“So complete was her withdrawal from public life that even her own children did not know she had died,” the article said.
The disclosure of her death inspired a brief resurgence of media interest in her story, focusing partly on what was broadly depicted as the severing of all ties with her two daughters and on the idiosyncratic circumstances of her transition.
After World War II, she developed an interest in the idea of a combination of hormone therapy and surgery to more closely align her body with her gender identity. This had been reinforced by a book called “Self: A Study in Ethics and Endocrinology” (1946) by Michael Dillon, a medical student whom she sought out in 1950.
Cowell wrote in her autobiography “Roberta Cowell’s Story,” that during their meeting, over lunch, Dillon revealed that he had himself changed his gender identity through doses of testosterone and gender-affirming surgery.
Together they agreed that he would help her transition by performing a procedure that was prohibited under so-called “mayhem” laws, forbidding the intentional “disfiguring” of men who would otherwise qualify to serve in the military. If discovered, Dillon would almost certainly have been prevented from completing his studies to become a physician. The operation, thus, was conducted in great secrecy, and its success enabled Cowell to seek medical affidavits to have her birth gender formally re-registered as female.
Soon afterward, Cowell became a patient of Harold Gillies, a pioneer of plastic surgery who had performed gender-affirming surgery on Dillon, according to the book “The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution” (2006).
“If it gives real happiness,” Gillies wrote of his procedures, “that is the most that any surgeon or medicine can give.”
Read the complete article here: Overlooked No More: Roberta Cowell, Trans Trailblazer, Pilot and Auto Racer
|Cowell participating in the women’s race car competition|
Sussex, England, age 39.