The Wrong Sex

The Wrong Sex


A Strange Story of Surgical Success and Unrequited Love
by Dr Andrew Bamji


Dr Andrew Bamji’s amply illustrated talk at Rye Museum on March 14 was possibly the most ‘different’ we have ever had but it was also one of the most fascinating, with so many curious details and surprise twists that post-talk questions could have gone on and on; we all wanted to be sure we’d understood this most unusual story properly.  For the intended reporter ‘getting the story straight’ was of particular importance so she arranged to send the speaker an eventual draft of a write-up for him to check for accuracy.   His response was a summary she instantly recognised would be much appreciated by fellow members of the audience, as well as by those who didn’t get to the talk – and which no report by another could possibly compete with for accuracy and interest . So here is the speaker’s own summary of the tale for which another title might be: How Laura Dillon and Robert Cowell became Michael Dillon and Roberta Cowell.   (Jean Floyd) 


Laura Dillon, brought up by two parsimonious maiden aunts, escaped to Oxford but at an early age felt she was the wrong sex.  She threw herself into sports, rowing stroke for the ladies’ Dark Blue crew and rejuvenating an almost moribund rowing club.  After Oxford she drifted, ending up working in a garage and finding a doctor who prescribed the newly available testosterone.  Having developed male characteristics and now calling herself Michael, in 1946 she approached Sir Harold Gillies to ask whether he would be prepared to create a penis – and over the next 5 years underwent a series of operations for this, meanwhile now training in Dublin to become a doctor.  None of her fellow students knew the secret.  Gillies had invented a technique of moving skin using a rolled flap, or tube pedicle, which he had used in the 1930s to create a penis for a series of patients with congenital absence, or traumatic loss.  The surgery involved creating a “tube within a tube” on the abdominal skin, swinging it into position and stitching it appropriately – although there were often problems with leakage at the join.  Dillon was the first ever female to male reassignment in the world. 

Dillon had written a short book titled “Self” which outlined in simple terms some of the issues faced by people who felt they were, as Gillies was to put it, “in the wrong sex pen”.  He was approached by Robert Cowell, a married man with two daughters who had been a fighter pilot, and subsequently a prisoner-of-war when his plane was shot down.  Cowell had read the book and thought Dillon would be sympathetic and possibly helpful.  They met, and as a consequence Dillon arranged for Gillies to see him.  But there were two complications.  Firstly it was illegal in the 1950s for orchidectomy (removal of the testes) to be performed except for medical reasons.  Secondly Dillon became infatuated with Cowell.  The consequence was that Dillon, still a medical student, agreed to do the orchidectomy in Dublin and got Cowell to sign a disclaimer lest anything went wrong.  Cowell then went back to Gillies who performed the first male to female surgery done in England.  He also re-shaped Cowell’s nose and chin to make them more feminine.

Dillon’s passion for Cowell was not reciprocated, and Dillon realised that his life as a transsexual would be risky if he was found out.  He went to sea as a ship’s doctor.  He had managed to have his birth certificate altered, and approached the editor of Debrett’s Peerage to have his entry changed; as the child of a baronet, with a childless older brother, there was the possibility that he could inherit the baronetcy.  Cowell meanwhile had sold her story to “Picture Post” for a substantial sum.  But Dillon’s secret emerged; Burke’s Peerage had failed to change its entry, and the discrepancy was the subject of a  gossip piece in the “Sunday Express” and Dillon was doorstepped when his ship arrived in America.  Was it Cowell who had tipped the paper off?  Being attracted to Buddhism Dillon fled to India, joined a Tibetan monastery, became a monk with the name Lobsang Jivaka, tried to sustain himself by writing, but gradually became malnourished and died of pneumonia in 1962.  Cowell was to live a solitary life until her death in 2011; she had been befriended by the journalist Liz Hodgkinson who wrote a biography of Dillon based on Cowell’s records, which was revised after Cowell’s death to include details that could not have been revealed in her lifetime.  Her isolation was compounded by refusing to meet her/his daughters despite their frequent requests.

Both stories were of sad introverts; how different it might have been for both of them in today’s more accepting culture.


 Here is a quick answer to the question: How did Dr Bamji, a successful rheumatologist, become such an expert on plastic surgery?         

Dr Andrew Bamji, of Rye, Sussex, a retired rheumatologist, is perhaps better known in Rye – thanks to a previous talk at Rye Museum – for his expertise on the pioneering era of facial surgery set in motion by the medical challenges of WWI battle injuries,  Having discovered the case files from the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup he developed an interest in the work of the pioneering surgeon Harold Gillies, who developed and fostered at Sidcup the innovations which  enabled the rapid strides in that field a century ago, Dr Bamji has since done much to promote wider international understanding of Gillies’ achievements. In the Second World War Gillies continued his work at Rooksdown Hospital in Basingstoke, and when those case files were going to be sent to permanent storage Dr Bamji collected some of the ‘fat files’ among which was that of Michael Dillon.  And one outcome of that was our March 14 talk at the Museum!

First posted in Featured, Past Talks, Talks Summaries on 17th March 2019
Last updated: 18th March 2019