Many of us are familiar with the stories of transgender female pioneers such as Lili Elbe and Christine Jorgenson. Not many are familiar the story of Michael Dillon, the first transgender man to undergo phalloplasty. His brother, Sir Robert Dillon, was the eighth Baronet of Lismullen in Ireland.
Michael Dillon was born Laura on May 1, 1915. His mother died of sepsis ten days after he was born. Abandoned by his father, he was raised by his two aunts in Kent, England. He studied at an “all girls” school at St Anne’s College in Oxford and was an award winning rower. After graduating he worked at a research laboratory in Gloucestershire.
Having known he identified as male for most of his life, Dillon sought treatment from Dr. George Foss in 1939. Foss had been experimenting with the use of testosterone to treat extreme menstrual bleeding for women at the time. It was a time when very little was known about the masculinizing affects of the hormone. Foss treated Dillon with testosterone pills and referred him to a psychiatrist who had leaked Dillon’s condition to the public. Dillon was forced to move to Bristol and he took up work in an auto garage.
The effects of the hormone treatments began to take hold and Dillon was passing as male without issue. His garage manager required his peers to refer to him as “he” to avoid any confusion by their patrons. Dillon was soon promoted to being a tow truck driver. He was also a “fire watcher” during arial raids from Nazi Germany in World War II.
Dillon was hypoglycemic and would have fainting episodes due to low blood sugar. While recovering from one of his episodes at the Royal Infirmary, he met a plastic surgeon who would end up performing his double mastectomy. He was then provided with a doctor’s note that enabled him to change his birth certificate. Dillon was referred to Harold Gillies, widely considered the father of plastic surgery and one of the pioneers of sex reassignment surgery. He had experience with reconstructing male genitalia for injured soldiers during the war. He also had experience performing surgery for people who were born with an intersex condition.
While waiting for Gillies to perform his sex reassignment surgery Dillon enrolled at Trinity College, in Dublin under his new name, Laurence Michael Dillon. He again became an award winning rower, this time as a member of the men’s team.
Dillon would undergo 13 surgeries with Gillies between 1946-1949. In order to legally perform the surgeries Gillies gave Dillon the diagnosis of acute hypospadias, a condition affecting the opening of the male penis, to hide the fact he was performing sex reassignment surgery. Dillon would blame war injuries to cover for the limp he had during the time of his surgeries. He also avoided close relationships with women because he believed he would be dishonest by not being able to give a woman a child. He was known for purposely cultivating a misogynist reputation to avoid relationships with women.
“Where the mind cannot be made to fit the body, the body should be made to fit, approximately at any rate, to the mind.”
In 1946, Dillon went on to write a book on the subject of the transgender condition called Self: A Study in Endocrinology and Ethics. Though the terminology was different at the time, Dillon surmized that the transgender condition was in fact a version of intersex and not a mental condition. “Where the mind cannot be made to fit the body, the body should be made to fit, approximately at any rate, to the mind.”, proclaimed Dillon in his book.
While not yet a licensed physician, Dillon performed an orchidectomy on Roberta Cowell. Cowell was England’s first transgender woman to have sex reassignment surgery performed. The surgery was performed by Harold Gillies.
In 1958, Dillon was listed as his brother’s heir in a national publication and as female assigned at birth. Dillon tried to explain the discrepancy as being a male born with a severe form of hypospadias. He explained his surgeries as a way to correct the condition. To avoid the attention, Dillon fled to India to become a Buddhist monk. He assumed the name Sramanera Jivaka then Lobzang Jivaka after switching monasteries. He continued to write books on Buddhism into the early 1960’s under both names. Living under difficult conditions and his simple vegetarian diet eventually lead to health issues. He died in a hospital in Dalhousie, India on May 15, 1962. He was 47 years old.