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Alison Li

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Alison Li on her biography of transgender medical pioneer Harry Benjamin

Writer and historian Alison Li can trace her fascination with hormones to a rather gruesome origin: a biochem lab at the University of Calgary where, as an undergrad, she worked a few summers sawing cow skulls apart to access and work up the pituitary gland.  

Her time as a biochemistry student in the lab helped her realize that she didn’t, in fact, want to become a scientist. After completing her undergraduate degree, she moved on to graduate work in the history of science. But her fascination with hormones and their changing role in medical science stayed with her.

“I’ve kept that interest from those early days,” Li says. “Even in the 1920s there was this idea that hormones could affect every aspect of your being: your physical health, your libido, your sexual characteristics, your mood – even criminal behaviour, they thought, could be affected by your glands. Even now, we still have this fascination with all the ways that hormones influence the way we are.”

Her interest in the science of hormones has informed her writing and research, and was a driving factor behind her latest work, the forthcoming Wondrous Transformations: A Maverick Physician, the Science of Hormones, and the Birth of the Transgender Revolution (University of North Carolina Press).

The book, which took Li about 10 years to complete, is a biography of Harry Benjamin, a New York–based, Berlin-born endocrinologist and sexologist who is widely credited for groundbreaking clinical work with transgender people, which he started in the late 1940s.  

Li first encountered Benjamin when she was researching the 1920s and some of the more colourful, glandular remedies that were popular at the time (and which have since been largely debunked). She had planned to write about the era in general, weaving together the stories of the various doctors and practitioners who were active in the era’s glandular, or hormone, science. But she found herself “irresistibly drawn” to Benjamin.

Benjamin, who was born in Berlin in 1885, died at the age of 101 and remained an active and practising physician well into his 90s. He first began to make headlines for his work in hormone medicine when he brought the Steinach operation, a partial vasectomy, to the United States in 1921. First developed by Eugen Steinach, the procedure was characterized as a way to rejuvenate patients’ vitality. Benjamin’s career tracked the ongoing developments in the science of hormones, including the times when it seemed closer to quackery than medicine.

“It seemed to me that his story, because he was so important in trans medicine, was really something that would be worthwhile knowing more about,” Li says. “His career covers such a range of changes in the history of medicine … and I thought it was interesting to look at how one person, one doctor, comes to absorb all these changes and deal with them.”

Despite her inherent reservations about pursuing the study of history through biography – as she writes, one of the dangers in a biographical approach to history “is that it can unduly emphasize the efforts of one person at the expense of contributions made by the many” – Li felt that by taking a closer look at the life and story of Benjamin, she would be able to look at the “huge changes” that have happened in hormone science over the last century.  

“It’s a really intriguing puzzle to figure out why this particular guy, who spent most of his career working on geriatrics, suddenly became famous for working with trans people,” she says. “And it helps us to have a perspective on what was happening in the field of hormone medicine.”

Li charts Benjamin’s work and life over many decades and shows how his approach to hormones and treatment changed over time alongside advances in science and understanding. Drawing on extensive archival material available at archives in Berlin, New York, San Francisco, and Chicago – and the Kinsey Institute in Indiana, which is home to Benjamin’s papers – she follows Benjamin from his work “rejuvenating” Hollywood actresses to his work with transgender patients, which he wrote about in his 1966 book, The Transsexual Phenomenon. Benjamin argued for compassionate and medical treatment of transgender patients, taking a different approach than many doctors, particularly in the U.S.

“Most other doctors at the time assumed that trans people had a psychiatric problem, and that their job was to change their minds to fit their bodies,” Li says. “What made him think it was a good idea to help trans people ‘change their bodies to fit their minds,’ as he put it? He really had a very different perspective.”

Li credits Benjamin’s compassionate approach to the company he kept: Magnus Hirschfeld, the German physician and sexologist who was a pioneering advocate for sexual minorities in the early 1900s, was a friend. And although Eugen Steinach’s rejuvenation procedure was ultimately discredited, Steinach was one of the first doctors to look at the potential effects of sex hormones on the body. 

Benjamin’s view was matched by a gentle bedside manner. He was known for looking his patients in the eye and treating each one as a human being and not a diagnosis.

American trans historian and University of Arizona professor emerita Susan Stryker welcomes Li’s biography of Benjamin both for how it places trans medicine in a broader context for those already familiar with his work and also for the historical perspective it offers. 

“Among those who are coming to trans issues for the first time, there’s a baseline assumption that this is something new that’s just emerged in the last few years,” Stryker says. “Simply showing that there’s a history of trans medicine that stretches back more than a century can make a rhetorically powerful counterpoint.” 

Li hopes that readers of her book will come away with the realization that discussions about trans medicine and the use of hormone treatment for trans people is not something unique to our current time.

I hope this book will help people to see that people have been wrestling with these specific ideas for more than a century,” Li says. “It’s really important to try to understand today’s contentious issues in this historical context.”