Monday, March 16, 2009

Lili Elbe

I've always assumed that sex-reassignment surgery was first performed in 1952 -- on Christine Jorgensen -- but this little tidbit in the June 8, 1929 New Yorker got me thinking.
Scientists have changed the sex of birds and insects. They have converted female fleas into male fleas, and funny stunts like that; and they are working around toward doing the same thing with people. We predict an avalanche of plays on this theme next season.
The proposed play isn't worth getting too far into (two men love one woman; man tricks other man to change sex, then falls in love with the transgendered woman) but it made me wonder: what was going on in 1929 to prompt The New Yorker to write about this subject?

As far as I can tell, some scientists in 1929 were having a lot of fun scrambling up chicken embryos, transplanting skin and glands to see what would happen. And what happened, according to M. M. Zawadowsky and E. M. Zubina, was that you could change the secondary sex characteristics of the hapless a chicken the plumage of a rooster, for example.

Obviously this has very little to do with sex-reassignment surgery as we know it, and it appears that Christine Jorgensen was the first transsexual to be treated with hormones. But in 1931 the FIRST publically-declared sex change was given to Lili Elbe.

Curiously this had nothing to do with the chicken experiments referenced in the New Yorker article; Elbe's transition was entirely surgical. They actually tried to give her overies and a uterus, and it was complications from the uterus transplant that killed her. The wacky doctors actually thought she could be made fertile, rather than dead.

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