The history of sex change surgery is fascinating; it begins with inspirational people braving prejudices and even subverting the law to do what they believed to be just.
The first cases of MTF or FTM surgeries are difficult to trace since they have often occurred clandestinely, and some tracks have been scrambled to protect the identity of the people concerned. The story of the great surgeons of sex change is the story of the liberation of morals.
First in Europe
Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld was one of those pioneers; he dedicated his life to the humanization of homosexuals, and he coined the term transsexuality. In the inter war period, he created the Institute of Sexology in Berlin, which aimed to normalize, educate, and protect, through science, practices that were then deemed abnormal. He collected the testimonials of transgender people he met, actively worked for their acceptance, and supervised Dr. Ludwig Levy-Lenz, who went on to perform one of the first MTF surgeries on Lili Elbe. Dr. Levy-Lenz then performed another sex change with Dr. Felix Abraham on Dora Richter. The Institute was destroyed by the Nazis, and the three doctors spent the rest of their lives in exile.
Then in North America
Dr. Harry Benjamin, a friend of Dr. Hirschfeld, was born in Berlin and made his career in the United States. In 1949, he created the term “Benjamin Syndrome” to designate transsexualism which he was the first one to define as “neither a perversion, nor a homosexuality”. He was one of the first to believe that the body must be altered to match perceived identity, and to recommend surgery or hormone therapy rather than psychoanalysis to his transgender patients. First seen as eccentric by the medical community, his views were eventually adopted.
Dr. Christian Hamburger, in Denmark, became famous in the early 50’s for taking over the sex change of Christine Jorgensen, who could be described as the first transsexual star. Her openness about her gender dysphoria throughout the 1960s and 1970s brought a lot to the liberation of morals in North America.
In Canada, Dianna Boileau was the first patient to undergo a MTF surgery. She first received hormone therapy in the United States until Canadian research groups were created and she then underwent gender affirmation surgery at the University of Toronto in 1970. When she was involved in a car accident in 1972, her sexual identity made headlines.
Given that a hundred years ago transgender people were operated on secretly by brave surgeons who defied the existing laws, such surgeries today are more and more accessible and recognized as one of the effective treatments for gender dysphoria.