In WWII-wra Britain, the decision to share his transition made Michael Dillon a reluctant celebrity.
One of the most important episodes in the history of gender re-assignment surgery took place in Bristol during the Second World War say researchers on the LBGT project.
In 1942 a Bristol Royal Infirmary house surgeon carried out an operation on Michael Dillon – christened Laura Dillon – the first procedure of its kind in the world.
Born into an aristocratic family in Dublin in 1915, Dillon said that by the time he was studying at Oxford he was dressing, and behaving, as a male.
“People thought I was a woman. But I wasn’t. I was just me,” he said later.
Moving to Bristol to work at a neurology lab, Dillon tried to join women’s branches of the armed forces when war broke out in 1939, but was turned down.
Instead he worked at a garage, College Motors in Rupert Street, for four years. It was at this time that a local GP, George Foss, supplied Dillon with testosterone pills to begin his transformation. He was being treated for the side-effects of these pills at the BRI when he confided in one of the hospital house surgeons. This doctor’s identity is unknown, but he carried out a double mastectomy on Dillon and helped him change his name, and official identity, from Laura to Michael. While living in Bristol Dillon wrote a book “Self: A Study in Ethics and Endocrinology” which outlines many of the principles by which transsexuals are still treated to this day.
Dillon studied at the Merchant Venturers Technical College in Bristol before going on to medical school at Trinity College, Dublin. During college vacations, Dillon underwent further procedures with the pioneering plastic surgeon Sir Harold Gillies at a hospital near Basingstoke. After qualifying as a doctor in 1951, he worked in a Dublin hospital.
Dillon also assisted Roberta Cowell, who had been born male and was Britain’s first male-to-female transsexual to have surgery.
Dillon later joined the merchant navy, working as a doctor on various ships and writing poetry in his spare time.
Though he desperately wanted to live a quiet life a national newspaper spotted the anomalies in a Burke’s Peerage entry when he inherited his father’s baronetcy
Dillon decided to retreat from the world and went to India, gave away all his possessions, and became a Buddhist monk.
He died in poverty 1962 aged just 47.
“Michael Dillon’s story is a remarkable tale of courage, and of a pioneering first that Bristol should be proud of” said Cheryl Morgan, co-chair of OutStories. “Thanks to him, and the kindness of two Bristol doctors, trans people all over the world now have access to medical treatment that changes their lives substantially for the better”
Andy Foyle, also from OutStories, adds,”Michael Dillon’s is just one of the fascinating stories that have come to light when we were researching Bristol’s LGBT heritage for the Revealing Stories exhibition. This is just one small part of the hidden history of up to a tenth of the city’s population, and we hope as many people as possible will come along to M Shed to find out more”
Photo and text CC license: Paul Townsend/Flickr