The following is a guest blog post by Alison Li, author of Wondrous Transformations: A Maverick Physician, the Science of Hormones, and the Birth of the Transgender Revolution, which is available now wherever books are sold.
When I was debating whether to write a biography of Dr. Harry Benjamin (1885-1986), several questions loomed large. Benjamin, a German-American physician, is best known as a pivotal figure in the development of transgender healthcare. His 1966 book The Transsexual Phenomenon was ground-breaking—the first major work to systematically describe the phenomenon of transsexuality and to advocate using the tools of medicine to treat trans people in the direction of their desired gender rather than against.
Could I, especially as a cis-gender historian, portray this demanding subject in a way that would be valid, interesting, and useful? After much reflection, I decided that I could. With my experience in the history of science and medicine, I thought I offered a perspective that was distinct and worthwhile.
There was also the question of whether a biography was the best way to present this material. Might it be more helpful to take a thematic tack? Here, I followed my gut instinct which told me Benjamin’s story was rich, illuminating, and well-worth a full account. Besides, it seemed to me that a life story is a wonderful way of making complicated issues of science and medicine more readily accessible to readers.
But finally, there was the daunting fact of the sheer longevity of the man. Benjamin lived to one-hundred-one and-a-half. And he didn’t retire until he was ninety! He grew up catching sight of the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck on the streets of imperial Berlin; he lived to see miniskirts, bell bottoms, and the Beatles. He was friend to Magnus Hirschfeld who first coined the term “transvestite” in 1910; he lived to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show become a cult phenomenon. Benjamin survived two world wars and immense social change. He saw the practice of medicine dramatically transformed by scientific discoveries and technical advances. Tackling his life story would mean dealing with many twists and turns.
Benjamin lived to one-hundred-one and-a-half. And he didn’t retire until he was ninety!
The starting point for most biographical accounts of Benjamin is a set of interviews conducted when he was in his mid-eighties. A final well-known interview was done on the occasion of his 100th birthday. Benjamin’s reminiscences read a bit like a name-dropping jaunt through the last century. He described everything from looking down Caruso’s throat backstage at the opera and dancing with the great soprano Geraldine Farrar, to encounters with Sigmund Freud, Havelock Ellis, Alfred Kinsey, and Margaret Sanger. As an historian, I knew to read such reminiscences with care. Memory can be faulty. Recollections are necessarily selective and interpretations of past events colored by the knowledge of how those events turned out. Just how accurate were these accounts? To what extent were they skewed, self-serving, or just plain mis-remembered?
For me, the thrill of historical research really begins when I open the first box of files at an archive. Crinkly yellowed paper, faded carbon copies, and pencilled notes hastily dashed off, all make my historical subject come to life. As I pieced together the fragments of Benjamin’s story, cross-referencing diary entries, ship manifests, letters and memos, I came to cautiously trust Benjamin’s late-life accounts. Some elements were impossible to definitively prove. The fleeting conversations, motivations, sentiment and sensation of daily life leave few traces. But concrete incidents, such as Benjamin’s incredible story of his ship being caught mid-ocean by the outbreak of the First World War—a tale I had initially suspected of being somewhat embellished—turned out to be events I could document well. And the details of the full story were even more captivating than I had first expected.
One particularly delightful piece of evidence arrived from an unexpected source. A story written by an English art teacher, Avies Platt, had lain unpublished in a bag at the back of a drawer for four decades until it was unearthed by her executor after her death and ultimately published in the London Review of Books in 2015. Platt described attending a lecture given by Benjamin in London in 1937 and her astonishing encounter with W.B. Yeats there. Putting Platt’s story alongside Benjamin’s engagement diary with its scribbled note from that evening—”Irish Poet Yeats”—I was made more confident of the plausibility of each.
As I pieced together the fragments of Benjamin’s story, cross-referencing diary entries, ship manifests, letters and memos, I came to cautiously trust Benjamin’s late-life accounts.
I sought to answer the question of how Benjamin, who had spent the large part of his career in geriatric medicine, came to become a sympathetic physician and advocate for transgender people. In the 1950s and 60s, most of his colleagues and contemporaries considered trans people in need of psychiatric treatment so that their minds could be made to fit their bodies. How did Benjamin come to believe that it was wiser and more humane to use the tools of medicine to help their bodies fit their minds?
Until his final days, Benjamin continued to regale his younger colleagues with a century of stories drawn from his eventful life. According to his friends, he died in full possession of his mental faculties. John Money said, “Not a single brain cell was missing!” After years of digging into the documentable details, I concluded, despite my initial skepticism, that Benjamin was a reliable narrator. I never found anything in his accounts that was contradicted by the sources. As someone who can sometimes struggle to remember what I ate for breakfast, I found his reminiscences a remarkably solid starting point for my research. What they revealed, beyond the glittering array of names, was the life of a man who was well-connected, often a bit starstruck, but who, more importantly, was in touch with and shaped by some of the most exciting currents of sexology and medicine in the early twentieth century. It was in tracing these many strands of influence that I was able to begin to piece together the answer.
Alison Li is a historian of science and medicine who writes about hormones, medical research, and the culture in which they are shaped. She is coeditor of Women, Health, and Nation: Canada and the United States since 1945.