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Harry Benjamin

Harry Benjamin (12 January 12 1885 – 24 August 1986) was a German-born sexologist[1] best known for his pioneering work with transsexuality.

Early life and career

He was born in Berlin, received his doctorate in medicine in 1912 in Tübingen for a dissertation on tuberculosis. Sexual medicine interested him, but was not part of his medical studies. In an interview conducted in 1985 he recalled:

I do remember going, as a young person, to a lecture by Auguste Forel, whose book The Sexual Question was a sensation at the time and which impressed me greatly. I also met Magnus Hirschfeld very early on through a girl friend, who know the police official Dr. Kopp, who was in charge investigating of sexual offenses. He, in turn, was a friend of Hirschfeld’s, and so I met both men. That was around 1907. They repeatedly took me along on their rounds through the homosexual bars in Berlin. I especially remember the ‘Eldorado’ with its drag shows, where also many of the customers appeared in the clothing of the other sex. The word “transvestite” had not yet been invented. Hirschfeld coined it only in 1910 in his well-known study.[2]

Following an ill-fated professional visit to the United States, the liner in which Benjamin was returning to Germany was caught mid-Atlantic both by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, and the Royal Navy. Given the choice of a British internment camp, as an “enemy alien”, or returning to New York, he used his last dollars to travel back to the country in which he made his home for the rest of his life, although he maintained, and built many international professional connections and visited Europe frequently when wars allowed.

After several failed attempts to start a medical career in New York, in 1915 Benjamin rented a consulting room, in which he also slept, and started his own general medical practise. Later he also practised in San Francisco (at 450 Sutter Street) in the summer of every year.

Work with transsexual people

In 1948, in San Francisco, Benjamin was asked by Alfred Kinsey, a fellow sexologist, to see a child who “wanted to become a girl”, despite being born male, and whose mother wished for help that would assist rather than thwart the child. Kinsey had encountered the child as a result of his interviews for Sexual Behavior in the Human Male which was published that year, and had seen nothing of the like previously. Neither had Benjamin. This child rapidly led Benjamin to understand that there was a different condition to that of transvestism, under which adults who had such needs had been classified to that time. See here for a competent history of earlier cases.

Despite psychiatrists whom Benjamin involved in the case failing to agree amongst themselves on a path of treatment, Benjamin eventually decided to treat the child with estrogen (Premarin, introduced in 1941), which had a “calming effect”, and helped arrange for the mother and child to go to Germany where surgery to assist the child could be performed, but from there they ceased to maintain contact, to Benjamin’s regret. However, Benjamin continued to refine his understanding, in 1954 introducing the term “transsexualism”, and going on to treat, with the assistance of carefully selected colleagues of various disciplines (such as psychiatrist John Alden and electrologist Martha Foss in San Francisco and plastic surgeon Jose Jesus Barbosa in Tijuana [3]), several hundred patients with similar needs in a similar manner, often without accepting any payment. His patients regarded him as a man of immense caring, respect and kindness, and many kept in touch with him until his death.

The legal, social and medical background to this in the United States, as in many other countries, was often a stark contrast, since wearing items of clothing associated with the opposite sex in public was often illegal, castration of a male was often illegal, anything seen as homosexuality was often persecuted, if not illegal, and many doctors considered all such people (including children) best treated by forced treatments such as drugged detention, electroconvulsive therapy or lobotomy.

Although Benjamin’s 1966 book, The Transsexual Phenomenon, was immensely important as the first large work describing and explaining the affirmative treatment path he pioneered, he had already published papers and lectured to professional audiences extensively. Publicity surrounding his patient Christine Jorgensen brought the issue into the mainstream in 1952, and led to a great many people presenting for assistance, internationally. Similar cases in other countries (such as that of Roberta Cowell, whose surgery by Harold Gillies in England was in 1951 but was not publicised until 1954; Coccinelle [4] who received much publicity in France in 1958, and April Ashley whose exposure in 1961 by the British tabloid press was reported world-wide) fuelled this. But most of Benjamin’s patients lived (and many still live) quiet lives.

Charles L Ihlenfeld, who worked with Benjamin for 6 years, was to become his heir apparent, but then left the practice to undertake a psychiatric residency, has written that:

By and large psychiatrists of this time considered gender dysphoria as a manifestation of significant psychopathology and considered the treatment Benjamin was then prescribing as psychiatrically contraindicated. Rather than discouraging Benjamin, this response simply reinforced his feeling that psychiatry as a discipline lacked common sense.[5]

Other work and interests

Apart from sexology, he was a gerontologist and worked on life extension. Benjamin himself lived to be 100. Benjamin was married to Gretchen, to whom he dedicated his 1966 major work, for 60 years.

In 1971 Benjamin published Basic Self-Knowledge a guide to the Fourth Way work of G. I. Gurdjieff. In 1979 the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association (now WPATH) was formed, using Benjamin’s name by permission.

See also

External links