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01 October 2012

Harry Benjamin (1884 - 1986) endocrinologist, gerontotherapist, sexologist. Part1: beginings.

Part 1: beginings
Part 2: rejuvenation
Part 3: transsexualism to 1966
Part 4: transsexualism since 1966

See also:
a rereading of The Transsexual Phenomenon
Harry Benjamin's other books
The other Harry Benjamin
Benjamin's first 10 patients: a disambiguation 

Harry Benjamin was born in Berlin, the eldest of three children. His father, Julius Benjamin, was a prosperous stockbroker, initially Jewish, who had converted to Lutheranism, and Harry was raised in the latter, and his family never spoke about sex. From early childhood, Harry wanted to be a doctor. His parents were among the first to own a phonograph, and he developed a passion for opera that he retained all his life.

He attended the Königliches Wilhelm Gymnasium, where half the students were from the nobility. The non-Jewish students thought that Benjamin was Jewish, and the Jews though that he was a goy. He changed school at 15, and so did not acquire the duelling scars that distinguished the graduates of the Wilhelm Gymnasium.

Benjamin in Prussian Guard uniform, with his mother.
He had a crush on the opera singer Geraldine Farrar, whom he saw at the Royal Opera House, and even danced with her once. He attached himself to the house physician of one of the opera houses and thus came to be acquainted with the opera stars of the period, and on one occasion examined Enrico Caruso’s throat. He did pre-medical studies in Berlin and Rostock, and served in the Prussian Guards.

In 1905, at the age of twenty, Harry read the newly published Die sexuelle Frage. Eine naturwissenschaftliche, psychologische, hygienische und soziologische Studie für Gebildete (The Sexual Question) by the Swiss sexologist Auguste-Henri Forel. This book confirmed for him that existing concepts of sex were wrong and unscientific, and could indeed be questioned.

A girlfriend introduced Benjamin to Kriminal-Kommissar Dr Kopp, the Berlin police official for sexual offences, who took both him and Magnus Hirschfeld to the Eldorado bar and other gay and drag bars in Berlin.

Benjamin completed his studies in medicine in 1912 at Tűbingen, Baden-Württemberg, with a dissertation on tuberculosis. He did a year of post-graduate work and met Carl Ludwig Schleich, the poet and surgeon who developed local anaesthesia. Schleich recommended that Benjamin become assistant to Friedrich Franz Friedmann who had developed a cure for tuberculosis of the joints by passing the tubercule baccilli through turtles. The results of his work were exaggerated in the press, and a New York banker offered a very large sum to treat his son in the hope that the treatment would work for tuberculosis of the lung also. Friedmann, his brother, Benjamin and a former Hearst reporter acting as secretary and press agent sailed for New York in early 1913 on the SS Kronprinzessin Cecilie. After a media fuss, the good results proved to be transitory, and Benjamin refused to fudge the findings. He resigned and Friedmann refused to pay for his voyage home.

He found a lab job at a New York hospital, and was asked to go to Germany and report on the results of the Friedmann cure there. He was mid-Atlantic, again on the SS Kronprinzessin Cecilie, when France mobilized on 1 August 1914, and the UK declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914. The ship was carrying $15 million of gold and silver for European banks, and so the captain turned back to avoid confiscation. The ship was interned at Bar Harbor, Maine, and the passengers proceeded by rail to Boston and New York, and the gold was returned to the New York banks. Benjamin was still officially a member of the Prussian Guard, but as he was stuck in the US for the duration of the war, he returned to New York, where he opened a medical practice, and where he stayed for the next 72 years.
How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. Cambridge, Ma, London: Harvard University Press, 2002: 45-8, 297n100   ____________________________________________________________

The DE.Wikipedia article on Königliches Wilhelms-Gymnasium does not list Harry Benjamin among its outstanding students, but does list an Erich Benjamin (1880-1943), a pediatrician and psychologist who died in Baltimore. One wonders if they were cousins?

Person, Matte and Meyerowitz say that Benjamin was raised as a Lutheran. Previous EN.Wikipedia article alone says that he was raised as an Askenazi Jew. It gives no citation to support this claim.

"Harry” is of course an English rather than a German name. DE.Wikipedia has an article on the name: "Harry ist ein englischer männlicher Vorname", and actually lists two Germans with the name: an East German bureaucrat and an economist (but not Benjamin).

Benjamin told Erwin Haeberle that his ship in 1914 was arrested and taken to the UK, and that he was permitted "with my last dollars" to return to New York. This is repeated in most accounts about Harry Benjamin. However he told Ethel Person that he sailed on the SS Kronprinzessin Cecilie. This ship is well documented in Wikipedia and elsewhere in that litigation of many years followed its internment in Bar Harbor. This ship definitely was not taken to the UK. He gave a third version to Leah Schaefer where he didn't even get on a ship: "However, he did not have enough money to return to Germany and, as Harry said, 'that was the luckiest thing because it forced me to remain in the United States, thereby avoiding two wars in Germany, plus the depression and most importantly of all, Hitler.' (Memorial:13)"
One presumes that Benjamin, being educated at elite schools in Germany, learned his excellent English there. However this is not confirmed.
Haeberle: How did you get a foothold in America?
Benjamin: At first, it was not easy. After various attempts, in 1915 I simply opened a consultation room, in which I also slept. My income was not substantial: $ 2 for a consultation, $ 3 for a house call. The rent was $ 6 per week.
Really. Was it that simple? Did New York State not require a doctor to obtain a license, and to demonstrate proficiency in English?

1 comment:

  1. This site shows wages in 1914 New York as 50-75 cents/hour. So you had to work about three hour to visit the doctor for 10 minutes - more if you were a woman.


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