Segments in this Video

Sex Changes that Made History: Introduction (02:06)


Through a series of operations, Michael (Laura) Dillon was the world's first woman to become a man. Bob (Roberta) Cowell was Britain's first man to become a woman. Unseen documents reveal secrets behind their stories.

Competing as a Woman (03:24)

Cowell competes in the Shelsley Walsh annual motor race in 1958; her operation briefly made her a celebrity. Liz Hodgkinson asked Cowell for an interview; she recalls Cowell's humor, her physical appearance, and her passion for cars.

Unrequited Love (02:46)

Cowell gave Hodgkinson documents from around the time of her gender reassignment. Hodgkinson learns that Dillon was in love with Cowell; Dillon was the world's first woman to become a man. Dillon's autobiography reveals his gender identity struggles.

Dillon's Oxford Experience (02:02)

In 1934, Dillon arrived at Oxford University; rowing became an outlet for her drive. Dillon cut her hair and began wearing mens' clothing. See footage of Dillon at the start of her transition to becoming a man.

Cowell's Racing Career (01:54)

In the 1930s, Cowell competed in Brooklyn's race circuit. His daughter Diana recalls his passion for racing. An excerpt from Cowell's memoirs reveals his gender identity struggle.

Living as a Masculine Woman (02:05)

Hodgkinson discovered that Dillon had a sex change operation before Cowell. Prof. Stephen Whittle likens his recognition of being born biologically the wrong gender to Dillon's experience. In the 1920s, sexologist Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld led a scientific study of sex and gender.

Sex Change Treatment (02:36)

In 1930, Hirschfeld performed the first recorded male to female sex change. In the 1940s, hormone therapy drugs provided a breakthrough; Dillon began testosterone treatment. Cowell suppressed feelings on gender, got married, had two daughters, joined the RAF, and became a POW; gender doubts resurfaced after the war.

Reconstructive Surgery (04:02)

Dillon asked authorities to change her birth certificate in 1944. Sir Harold Gillies developed the tube pedicle during WWI and realized it could be adapted to recreate a penis. In 1944, Dillon asked Gillies to create him a penis.

Secret Surgeries (03:15)

Dillon, interested in the study of sexual orientation, attended Trinity College in 1945. Prof. Davis Coakley reveals information about Dillon's time at Trinity. Dillon began his series of sex change operations in 1946.

Gender Reassignment (02:00)

Dr. Andrew Bamji studied Dillon's medical records detailing 17 operations performed over a nine year period. Whittle compares Dillon's experience to his operation.

Quest of Self-Identity (05:06)

Experts reflect on Cowell's attempts to live as a man and transition to living as a woman; Diana recalls Dillon's departure in 1948. In 1949, Cowell met Dillon; Dillon fell in love. Gillies met Cowell and agreed to perform gender reassignment.

Cowell's Push for Castration (02:21)

Cowell wanted Gillies to perform gender reassignment but English laws restricted the removal of testes. Hodgkinson reads a document revealing Dillon's agreement to perform Cowell's orchiectomy.

Cowell's Gender Reassignment (02:17)

Gillies, a general surgeon, and a gynecologist practice male to female reassignment on a corpse before performing Cowell's operation; Gillies also reshaped Cowell's mouth. In 1952, George Jorgensen went public with his sex change, angering Cowell.

Cowell Goes Public (01:57)

In 1954, Cowell sold her story to Picture Post magazine; Cowell's family did not like the attention. Diana recalls learning about her father's gender reassignment.

Tabloids Expose Dillon (04:41)

Dillon feared exposure after Cowell went public and found work at sea. The Sunday Express discovered his secret and revealed Dillon's family connections; Dillon's brother rejected him. Dillon became a Buddhist monk.

Dillon and Cowell, Pioneers (04:03)

In 1962, Dillon posted his autobiography manuscript; he died two weeks later. Hodgkinson believes Dillon committed suicide. Cowell never responded to requests for contact from her children and died in 2011; Diana meets Hodgkinson.

Credits: Sex Changes That Made History (00:31)

Credits: Sex Changes That Made History

For additional digital leasing and purchase options contact a media consultant at 800-257-5126
(press option 3) or

Sex Changes That Made History

DVD (Chaptered) Price: $300.00
DVD + 3-Year Streaming Price: $450.00
3-Year Streaming Price: $300.00



This is the gripping story of three extraordinary people -- the world’s first woman to become a man through surgery, the former Spitfire pilot who became Britain’s first man to become a woman and the daring advanced plastic surgeon who carried out their sex change operations in the 1940s. Surgical gender reassignment is now almost a commonplace procedure, but then it was seen as "science fiction surgery" and when the news broke it was a sensation. Michael Dillon, originally called Laura, had persuaded the brilliant Sir Harold Gillies –- the founding father of plastic surgery thanks to his pioneering work with badly injured soldiers from both World Wars –- to carry out the female-to-male operation that no surgeon in the world had ever attempted. Both men then helped former racing car driver and wartime pilot Robert Cowell change his own gender and become a woman.

Length: 48 minutes

Item#: BVL124989

ISBN: 978-1-63521-926-5

Copyright date: ©2015

Closed Captioned

Performance Rights

Prices include public performance rights.

Not available to Home Video and Publisher customers.