A Maverick Physician, the Age of Hormones and the Transsexual Phenomenon
The story of hormone therapy told through the fascinating life of Dr Harry Benjamin, who pioneered the use of hormones to assist in gender transitions.
Today it’s unexceptional to think of ourselves as hormonal beings. We hold hormones responsible for making our bodies morph through our lifetimes and for sparking quixotic changes in temper. We blame ‘raging hormones’ for the tempests of puberty and midlife and spend our days ‘running on adrenalin’ in ‘testosterone-fuelled' workplaces. Yet this view is relatively recent.
In Wondrous Transformations, Alison Li tells the fascinating history of the rise of hormones through the life of one of its foremost pioneers. A daring explorer in the areas of sex and ageing, as well as a celebrity doctor in 1920s’ New York, German-born physician Harry Benjamin (1885– 1986) first became acquainted with the science of hormones in 1916. He then devoted his life to using this new technology to help people transform themselves – from old to young, in his famed practice on Central Park West, or, decades later, from male to female. Benjamin’s sympathetic work with those who wanted to transition from one biological sex to another was groundbreaking in mid-century America, when homosexuality and any behaviour that crossed gender lines was not just pathologized but criminalized, too.
Li shows how, over the course of the twentieth century, Benjamin helped pave the way for our understanding of ourselves as chemically malleable, exquisitely receptive to hormone manipulations as subtle as the tweaks needed to dial down the symptoms of menopause or as radical as the re- shapings undertaken by body builders. In doing so, she traces the development of the influential concept of biological control and the then-revolutionary idea that we can transform our bodies to match our minds. It’s ultimately a tale not only about the chemical transformation of our bodies but also about the transformation of the very concept of identity and self.