In 1914 he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, and pioneered a facial injury ward, and later hospital for wounded soldiers. At The Queen’s Hospital which opened in June 1917, he and his colleagues developed much plastic surgery and performed over 11,000 operations on over 5,000 men. He was knighted in 1930.
In the Second World War, he consulted with the Ministry of Health, and organized plastic surgery units, and trained other doctors. He had developed ‘flap surgery’ where a flap of skin is moved to another part of the body to help healing. Flaps were later rolled into tubes, from which a penis could be fashioned.
The first transsexual surgeries had been performed in the 1920s in Berlin by Ludwig Lenz and Felix Abraham at Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, and in Moscow by Il’ia Golianitskii, The rise of the Nazis traumatically interrupted the evolution of this knowledge. Arlette-Irène Leber had vaginoplasty in Switzerland in late 1941.
The next operations were by performed by Harold Gillies. A series of operations from 1942-6 on female-to-male Michael Dillon, who himself later qualified as a doctor. This was the first ever operation anywhere to change a woman into man. Gillies also performed the first UK male-to-female operation on Betty Cowell in 1951. These operations resulting in his having to appear before the General Medical Council.
Following this, urologist Kenneth Walker arranged an appointment for Georgina Turtle. It was probably a mistake for Turtle to have come straight from his job as a male dentist clad in a black morning coat and pinstrip trousers. Gillies waved him away: “I do not really think you look or could be made to look like a woman". Subsequently Turtle's operation was performed by Gillies' colleague and compatriot Patrick Clarkson. Four years later, after Turtle had obtained a revised birth certificate, Gillies wrote to say that he was sorry for what he had said, and request help in getting one of his 'very deserving cases' a correction of birth certificate.
Gillies is not known to have done any other sex-change operations after the two pioneering cases.
Harold Gillies is referred to as the father of plastic surgery. He was also a noted painter, a champion golfer and practical joker. His paintings were exhibited at Foyale's Art Gallery in 1948.
Mrs Gillies died in 1957, and Harold married a woman who had been his surgical assistant some months later.
In 1960, Gillies suffered a cerebral thrombosis while operating. He died in hospital a month later.
- Harold D. Gillies. Plastic Surgery of the Face. London: Henry Frowde, 1920;
- Roberta Cowell. Roberta Cowell's Story. London: Heinemann. New York: British Book Centre, 1954.
- Harold D. Gillies & Ralph Millard. The Principles and Art of Plastic Surgery. London and New York: Butterworth, 1957.
- Reginald Pound. Gillies: Surgeon Extraordinary. London: Michael Joseph, 1964.
- Craig Williams. “Harold Gillies: Aesthetic Reconstructor”. The New Zealand Edge. www.nzedge.com/heroes/gillies.html.
- Liz Hodgkinson. Michael née Laura. Columbus Books. 1989.
- Pagan Kennedy. The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007: 7-8, 60-67, 70-3, 78-81, 97-9.