Lili Elbe (1886-1931) was the first known recipient of genital reconstruction surgery.
She was born in Denmark. At the Copenhagen art school, Elbe met a woman named Gerda, and they married in around 1906.
Elbe and Gerda worked as illustrators, Elbe specialising in landscape paintings while Gerda illustrated books and fashion magazines. Apparently, Elbe noticed a propensity towards female dress whilst modelling for Gerda.
It is believed that she was probably intersex; she looked more female than male, and may have had Klinefelter’s Syndrome. A Dresden doctor claimed to have noticed rudimentary ovaries. Pre-operative blood tests indicated large amounts of female hormones at the expense of the male ones.
In 1920’s and 1930’s she dressed as a woman, attended various festivities, and entertained guests in her house as Lili Elbe. She was apparently very well accepted as a woman because she even received a request for marriage. Only her closest friends knew that she was transsexual. To others, Elbe was introduced by Gerda as her (Elbe’s) sister.
In 1930 she went to Germany for surgery – which was only in an experimental state at the time. Her first surgery, removal of the male genitals, was made under supervision of sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin. The rest were made by Dr Warnekros in Dresden’s Women’s Clinic. Second operation was intended to transplant ovaries – which were removed in the fourth operation due to serious complications.
Her case was already a sensation in newspapers of Denmark and Germany. The King of Denmark invalidated her marriage in October 1930. She managed to get her sex legally changed, including receiving a passport under her new name. She also stopped painting. Gerda married a mutual friend and Lili accepted a proposition from another – as soon as she would be able to “become a mother”.
Lili Elbe died in 1931, probably due to complications after her fifth and last operation. Some believe, however, that she may have just faked her death to live in peace with another name.
A book about her life, Man into Woman (edited by Ernst Ludwig Hathorn Jacobson using the pseudonym Niels Hoyer), was published in 1933. The book also uses pseudonyms for her friends.
- David Ebershoff: The Danish Girl