Robert Marshall Cowell was born in Croydon, the middle child of three. His father was Ernest Cowell, the prominent surgeon in the Royal Army Medical Corps and at Croydon General Infirmary (now closed), and who would be Director of Medical Services for the Allied Forces in North Africa and Italy during the Second World War.
Robert had an aptitude for mechanical things. From the age of twelve he spent his holidays in engineering workshops in Croydon. His public school had a motor club where under-aged members drove motorcycles and cars on the school grounds. John Cunningham, the future RAF night fighter ace was a member of the same club. Robert also joined the Officers’ Training Corps while at school, and became a non-commissioned officer. In the early 1930s, Robert and a friend spent a summer holiday in Belgium, Austria and Germany, and picked up some German.
He left school at sixteen and entered a series of tennis tournaments, which led to his first homosexual proposal, which he quickly ran from.
He worked in both aircraft and racing car service shops. At seventeen he drove in the London-Land’s-End trial run. Later in 1935 he joined the RAF as a pupil pilot. He gained a commission but found that flying made him feel extremely ill. He was invalided out of the RAF, and declared as permanently unfit for flying duties.
He studied engineering at University College, London, where he met his future wife, Diana, who was also a racing driver. He drove in motor races and speed trials, including the 1939 Grand Prix in Antwerp. Later that year, he almost ran down Neville Chamberlain who was crossing Parliament Square.
With the outbreak of war, Cowell thought that the best job to have was that of a fighter pilot. He pestered the Air Ministry, but they wouldn’t take him back. He was offered a position in the Royal Army Service Corps with a promise of a fast-track commissioning. In January 1941 he was commissioned as a captain.
In May he married his girlfriend, who by then had a degree in engineering. They spent the war apart but did manage to have two daughters, born in 1942 and 1944.
After a few months in Iceland (which had decriminalized homosexuality while under British occupation) Robert managed to get transferred to the RAF. By this time he knew how to fake a military medical exam.
He was trained to fly various fighter planes and bombers. He mainly saw action supporting the Invasion of France in the summer of 1944, until his plane was hit by flak, and he became a prisoner of the Germans.
He spent the rest of the war in Stalag Luft 1, between Lübeck and Rostock. He vehemently refused to play a female role in the camp theatricals, as he felt that ‘would have been a public declaration of homosexuality’. The gay cliques in the camp constantly annoyed him by assuming that he was one of them. On 30 April 1945 the prisoners refused German orders to evacuate in the face of the advancing Soviet Army. After negotiations, the Germans left leaving the POWs behind. Two weeks later Captain Cowell and the other British prisoners were flown home.
Back in England, with a business partner, Cowell set up a specialist auto engineering company. They built cars for motor racing, and he competed as a driver. He also renovated houses and sold them at a profit.
His marriage fell apart as Diana was not happy about his wearing her clothes, and suspected him of seeing other women. They separated in 1948. Cowell never saw his daughters again. His wife re-married and had three more children. The two girls were brought up by their grandparents, Sir Ernest and his wife.
Robert continued to be depressed, and saw a couple of Freudian analysts. The outcome was:
“The feminine side of my nature, which all my life I had known of and severely repressed, was very much more fundamental and deep-rooted than I had supposed (p96)”.He secured a consultation with a Harley Street sexologist who referred him to a woman endocrinologist, who put him on oestrogens. Feeling that he should counterbalance the heavily masculine nature of his business interests, he invested in a small company which designed and manufactured women’s clothes, both theatrical and haute couture, and proceeded to learn that business. He also struck up a friendship with a woman, Lisa, whom he met in a London hotel, who later lived with him and helped him transition.
Cowell came across the 1946 book Self: a study in ethics and endocrinology, by Michael Dillon, which contains a section discussing sex changes as possible. Cowell wrote to him via the publisher, and after several lengthy letters, they met in London. Dillon admitted that he had been a woman until a few years previously. More meetings followed. Michael convinced himself that fate had put them together, and they should be a couple. Cowell needed an orchiectomy if she were to proceed to being a woman, but no doctor in the UK would do the operation because of the mayhem laws. Michael, who was nearing the completion of his medical degree at Trinity College, Dublin, used his new skills to do so. He also introduced Roberta to Arthur Millbourn, Canon at Bristol Cathedral, and to his surgeon Harold Gillies. However he finally had to concede that Roberta was not returning his passion.
Roberta had a consultation with Dr George Dusseau on Wimpole Street. Given her orchiectomy, he agreed to write a letter that was “in the nature of a working certificate to enable the plastic surgeons to carry out their operations”. That done, Roberta was able to change her name by deed poll to Roberta Elizabeth Cowell and to get her birth certificate amended. From then on she would be Betty to her friends.
Sir Harold Gillies was now willing to proceed with surgery. He had never done a vaginoplasty before. He practiced the previous evening on the torso of a male cadaver. The operation was successful and medical affidavits were sworn. Cowell then persuaded Gillies to feminize her face.
The Cowells’ divorce decree was made absolute later in 1952. Betty was now deeply in debt after medical bills, the closure of her engineering firm and the failure of her dress-making firm.
In 1953 the news story broke about another pioneering transsexual, Christine Jorgensen. By early 1954, Betty knew that she herself was about to be a front-page story. She negotiated with the Picture Post that she would write an exclusive for them. It was said by the Sunday Pictorial that they paid £20,000 (according to this calculator, equivalent to £440,000 today), an enormous sum that allowed her to clear all her debts.
A ‘disclosure’ in the form of a Press Association statement was issued on 6 March 1954. With the notable exception of The Times, most British papers carried it on the front page with different headlines, but with almost the same text:
“This amazing change of sex is believed to be the first case in Britain where an adult male has so fully taken on the physical and mental characteristics of a woman. It may well be the most complete change of sex in the medical history of the entire world”.The Daily Herald’s doctor commented that
Cowell wisely left for the continent, pursued as she was by a pack of journalists. The Sunday Pictorial, which would become the Sunday Mirror in 1963 and which had published an homophobic three-part series, “Evil Men” in 1952, and had serialized the Jorgensen story in 1953, gave scant attention to Cowell on the first weekend, but a week later was saying that she was a transvestist and expressed concern for the“cases of women becoming men are increasing but the change from male to female is rare”.
“startling legal and medical tangle which arises” and said that: doctors who deal with these change of sex cases.......”.are anxious for their position in the eyes of the law and the community to be clarified. This is a matter for the law makers.”The Sunday People, the same week, ran the headline 'ROBERTA IS NO REAL WOMAN'. However it accepted Cowell’s claim that the operation was largely to speed up changes taking place naturally. The next day Roberta’s father, Ernest Cowell was quoted saying:
“I am told that it is quite on the cards for her to bear children”.However by the next weekend, he had retracted:
“this is not a case of hermaphroditism” and he agreed that Roberta was a transvestist.
|Betty in 1958|
|Betty in the 1970s|
“cluttered with pilots’ helmets, high-frequency radios, models of planes and racing cars. She’s logged 1,600 hours as a pilot (recently she flew at Mach 2 twice the speed of sound )... She doesn’t approve of the Permissive Society and she doesn’t welcome Women’s Lib. She certainly hopes the trend towards Unisex has stopped. It’s unhealthy, unnatural. ‘My experience shows that men and women are so completely different as to be almost different species.’”She also disapproved of other transsexuals:
“I was a freak. I had an operation and I’m not a freak any more. I had female chromosome make-up, XX. The people who have followed me have often been those with male chromosomes, XY. So they’ve been normal people who’ve turned themselves into freaks by means of the operation.”In the 1970s Betty worked with Liz Hodgkinson on a second book which however was never completed.
Betty and Lisa continued to live together on and off until the latter died at the end of the 1980s. Betty then moved into a flat in Hampton. She was reclusive and private, but always had an expensive car. However she used it less as she aged. Her spine became bent and swollen legs made walking impossible.
Diana died in 2006. Betty's last years were spent alone in sheltered accomodation. She died aged 93. Only a few friends attended the cremation, and no news of her death was published in any newspaper until an article in The Independent on Sunday in October 2013. Her daughters were not informed until contacted by the newspaper prior to publication
- Roberta Cowell. Roberta Cowell's Story. British Book Centre, 1954. With a preface by Canon Millbourn. Online and also.
- “Former British Fighter Pilot Changes Sex”. Reprinted in Lewiston Evening Journal, Mar 6, 1954. Online
- “Wife’s Story of Man Who Changed Sex”. AAP, March 7, 1954, reprinted in The Sydney Morning Herald. Online
- “Ex-War Flier Now ‘Completely Female’. Doctor-Father Confirms ‘Son Robert is now Daughter Roberta’ “ The Vancouver Sun, March 15, 1954. Online
- “The Real Story of Sex Change: Here’s Medical Proof of Father of Two Who Turned Into a Woman”. PIC: The Magazine for Young Men, 26,1, March 1955. Online
- “Roberta Wins Hill Climb”. British Pathé, 1957. Online
- Harold D. Gillies & D. Ralph Millard. The Principles and Art of Plastic Surgery. Butterworth, 1957: II,384-7.
- Auriol Stevens. “The sexual misfits”. The Guardian, 7 Jan 1970, reprinted 7 Jan 2012. Online.
- Michael Bateman interviews Roberta Cowell. Atticus, The Sunday Times, 12 March 1972. Online.
- Liz Hodgkinson. Bodyshock: The Truth About Changing Sex. Columbus Books 1987: 21-2.
- Liz Hodgkinson. Michael née Laura. Columbus Books. 1989: chp 6.
- Dave King. The Transvestite and the Transsexual: Public Categories and Private Identities. Avebury, 1993: 51-55, 86, 103, 110-115, 118, 119, 125, 128, 130, 132, 141, 162, 169.
- Richard Ekins & Dave King (eds). Blending genders: social aspects of cross-dressing and sex-changing. Routledge. 2002: 87-91. 135-7, 141, 146.
- Pagan Kennedy. The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution. Bloomsbury. 2007: 3-4, 10-14, 55-7, 76-8, 85-99, 103-5, 109-113, 119-120, 136.
- Jean-François Bouzanquet. Fast Ladies: Female Racing Drivers, 1888-1970. Veloce, 2009: 99-103.
- Matthew Bell. "'It's easier to change a body than to change a mind': The extraordinary life and lonely death of Roberta Cowell ". The Independent on Sunday, 27 October 2013. Online
Page references are to the 1954 edition. The PDF edition has been repaginated.
Some online articles say that Cowell was born in 1921. However this is not compatible with dates in her autobiography. For example Cowell is 17 in 1935 (p17), 20 in 1939 (p23). The newspaper story, “Wife’s Story of Man Who Changed Sex’, 1954, says that Roberta was then 36. Therefore Cowell must have been born in 1918.
Wikipedia actually has a Cowell (surname) disambiguation page that at this date includes neither Roberta Cowell nor Ernest Cowell nor Robert Cowell, the US swimmer.
For those of you who are into titles, Ernest’s full moniker is Major General Sir Ernest Cowell K.B.E., C.B., D.S.O., T.D. (1886-1971). He was doctor to Winston Churchill, General Eisenhower, and Director of Medical Services for the Allied Forces in North Africa and Italy during 1942-1944. Being of such low significance, there is no Wikipedia or other web page about him.
Why did Canon Arthur Millbourn write the Preface to Betty’s autobiography? There is no mention of him in her autobiography, nor in Kennedy’s book. Cowell was not a church goer, and is proud to have resisted early religious indoctrination, and not to have succumbed to prayer as his plane crashed in Germany. Millbourn does appear in Hodgkinson’s biography of Dillon.
Cowell says quite clearly that it was the Russians who liberated Stalag Luft 1, as we would expect as it was clearly in the future East Germany. Why does Kennedy go from precise to vague and say "freedom came in the form of Allied bombers, a phalanx of B19s that peeled out of the sky and landed near the German camp (p76)"?
While Drs Dusseau, Dillon & Gillies appear in Cowell’s autobiography, none of them are named. The two Freudian analysts, the Harley Street sexologist and the female endocrinologist have not been identified.
The statement that Michael Dillon performed Betty’s orchiectomy appears only in Kennedy (p91-2). It is based on a release that she signed: “I desire that he be absolved from all responsibility in this this operation, due to possible hemorrhage or sepsis, which I am desirous to undergo being fully aware that either might, per fortunam, be fatal”. This paper is in Hodgkinson’s collection. She did not use it in her biography of Michael, but did pass it on to Kennedy.
There is no suggestion or admission by Cowell, Hodgkinson or Kennedy, that Roberta was able to use her father’s contacts to get appointments with top doctors.
Hodgkinson explains why Michael fell for Roberta: “although he did not want to be considered a snob [he] was far more comfortable with people of his own kind of background. Roberta fitted the bill here. Her father was one of the leading surgeons of his day, her background was upper-middle-class, and she spoke with the correct vowel sounds, which was always vitally important to Dillon. (p87)”. However their interests were radically different. Michael’s idea of taking out a woman was to go to a play in ancient Greek, and he enjoyed cycling/camping in Ireland. Roberta, of course, liked to race cars and fly planes. This did not bode well as a traditional relationship. There was one more thing. As Betty admitted to Hodgkinson years later, “But as far as I was concerned, it would have been two females getting married (p87)”.
Which brings us to Betty’s most aggravating trait: that no transsexual but she is the real thing. Michael Dillon is a female; Christine Jorgensen is a transvestist. And see her comment for the Sunday Times in 1972 quoted above.
This is possibly related to something neither Hodgkinson nor Kennedy mention: Cowell’s homophobia:
“I was not a homosexual; my inclinations, as they developed, were entirely heterosexual. I was horrified and repelled by homosexual overtures, and this loathing included any boy who showed the slightest sign of being a ‘sissy.’ I could be friendly with other men, but I could not bear any form of physical contact with them. It was impossible for me to stand having someone link his arm in mine, and even shaking hands was unpleasant. (p1)”
“One thing was certain. I had not the slightest desire to swell the ranks of the gentlemen of no particular gender. It is true that I had become a little more tolerant in this direction than I had been in the past; this meant, however, that had I met one I would have refrained from actually kicking his spine up through the top of his head. (p101).”
“There is strong anthropological evidence that the basis of transvestism is, in the main, a homosexual one. It can hardly be considered a manifestation of heterosexuality. But the homosexual element is nearly always entirely unconscious, and often very deeply buried. When a transvestite strenuously denies that he has the slightest tendency in this direction, it is entirely likely that he is telling what he believes to be the truth. (p175)“ --- Cowell fails to connect this statement to his own strenuous denials.The claim of being intersex, the non-acceptance of other transsexuals, the homophobia. Betty had much in common with the HBS movement of the early 21st century.
Lisa, who according to the autobiography was a major factor in helping Roberta to emerge, is not even mentioned in Kennedy’s retelling. She is not named as such in Hodgkinson’s biography but is presumably the flatmate whom Michael ended up taking to see Greek plays when Betty made a point of avoiding him.
How did the press get onto Roberta in 1954? Cowell tells (p159) of a journalist friend phoning up excitedly as the Jorgenson story broke to get her opinion because of her medical knowledge. Medical knowledge?! Kennedy suggests (p103) “It’s not clear who had tattled on her. Cowell herself may have been the one who leaked it.” There is another possibility. While Roberta wrote her book asserting that she passed 100% and no one would ever guess her past, she certainly would not be the last transsexual to overestimate her passing. It is quite likely that her transition was a ‘secret all over the block’, and by common consent it was not mentioned to her. The journalist phoned her on that topic precisely because he knew that she had been through the same experience.
I found Roberta’s autobiography a much better read than Kennedy’s paraphrase. She has a wry style that is quite funny at times, and has lots of good anecdotes about people she meets. That is all removed in Kennedy’s book. What Kennedy adds is that she deflates the illusion that Roberta was an XX and did not do the usual transsexual change things.