Roberta Cowell (1918-2011)

Roberta Cowell (8 april 1918 – 11 october 2011)

'It's easier to change a body than to change a mind': The extraordinary life and lonely death of Roberta Cowell

Roberta "Betty" Cowell  (born as Robert Cowell) was the first known person in Britain, and among the first in the world, to undergo pioneering gender-reassignment surgery, in 1948, before more famous cases such as April Ashley and Christine Jorgensen. Before the war, as Bob, she (Cowell herself joked in her autobiography that one of the trickiest parts of undergoing gender reassignment was knowing which pronoun to use) had been a racing driver, competing at Brooklands in Surrey and in the Belgian Grand Prix. .

Later, Cowell became a fighter pilot, flying Tiger Moths and Spitfires. When her plane was shot down, she was captured and interned in Stalag Luft I

Robert Marshall Cowell was born in April 1918, one of three children of the prominent London surgeon Sir Ernest Cowell and his wife Dorothy. His upbringing was typical of an upper-middle-class family of the period: strict, religious and unforgiving. A chubby child with glasses, Bob was nicknamed "Circumference" and "Bottom" at school. He was left-handed, but forced to write with his right hand.

From an early age he was obsessed with cars, and showed great mechanical ability. He would sneak into the pits of the banked Brooklands circuit, near his family home in Croydon, to help the mechanics. He soon became a racing driver, and joined the RAF as a pupil pilot in 1935.

In May 1941, he married Diana Carpenter, who he had met at London University. She was also a racing driver, and like him had a degree in engineering. They had two daughters: Anne was born in July 1942, Diana in August 1944.

So far, so conventional. What happened in the years immediately after the war was anything but. In the autobiography she published in 1954, Roberta describes a feeling of restlessness and dissatisfaction, and a sense that her life was "pointless and empty". She began to realise that her excessively masculine life up to that point had been an attempt to hide "what I knew deep down inside me though not consciously: my nature was essentially feminine and in some way my world was out of joint". Months of psychoanalysis and tests confirmed that "my unconscious mind was predominantly female".

Physically, she also felt different. She was examined by a Harley Street sexologist, who gave his opinion that her body showed prominent feminine sex characteristics: "wide hips and narrow shoulders, pelvis female in type, hair distribution and skin female in type". Other female traits included "the absence of laryngeal relief (no Adam's apple) and a tendency of the lower limbs to converge towards the knees. 

My breast formation was examined and judged to be typically feminine though very little developed." The origin of these discrepancies is unclear. Whether she was born with them, or whether, as she suggests, they were caused by "a series of emotional upsets", is impossible to know. 

In her book, Cowell explains that she had a unique medical condition that meant she was essentially a woman in a man's body. But amid the ignorance and confusion surrounding intersexuality, other theories abounded. Anne and Diana recall being told that Bob had changed sex as a money-making scheme. "Our father was always coming up with business ventures," says Anne. "I remember our uncles and aunts said he did it to make money, to sell his story."

Cowell became friends with Michael Dillon, a physician who had been born female and was the first trans person to undergo phalloplasty. Dillon performed the initial operation on Cowell to remove her testicles, in 1948, which was illegal at the time. This allowed her to be certified by a gynaecologist as intersex, and for further surgery to be carried out. On 15 May 1951, she had a vaginoplasty, conducted by Sir Harold Gillies, a leading pioneer in plastic surgery.

Cowell died on 11 October 2011. Her funeral was attended by only six people and (on her instructions) was unpublicised - her death was not publicly reported until two years later, when a profile of her was printed in The Independent newspaper in October 2013.

Roberta Cowell

It's easyer to change a body than to change a mind

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