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05 October 2012

Harry Benjamin: part 2: rejuvenation.

Part 1: beginings
Part 2: rejuvenation
Part 3: transsexualism to 1966
Part 4: transsexualism since 1966
Part 5: rereading of The Transsexual Phenomenon.

Harry Benjamin became intrigued by the burgeoning new field of endocrinology and joined the New York Neurological Institute. In 1920 there was enormous publicity about Sergei Voronoff of the Collège de France who rejuvenated old men by transplanting monkey glands. Benjamin thought to meet with Voronoff, and in 1921 had the opportunity of accompanying a female patient, all expenses paid, to Vienna. There he discussed the idea with Max Herz, the appropriately-named heart specialist in Vienna, who thought that Eugen Steinach of the Vienna Vivarium was the real pioneer in the field.

Steinach proposed that ligation of the vas deferens, while causing atrophy of spermatogenic tissue, would produce additional testosterone. This vasoligation, unlike the similar vasectomy, was done on one testicle only, and most patients reported increased vigour and sexual power. He also apparently did ‘sex changes’ on guinea pigs with castrations and gland transplants. Benjamin met with Steinach and was duly impressed. Also in 1921, Benjamin returned to Berlin for the International Conference for Sexual Reform on a Sexological Basis, and again met its organizer, Magnus Hirschfeld, and also his assistants and collaborators, one of whom, Arthur Kronfeld briefly psychoanalyzed him. Benjamin became Steinach’s US disciple.

Benjamin delivered a lecture on Steinach and his work at the New York Academy of Medicine in late 1921, and screened the Steinach film in 1923. In 1922 he  published two articles in medical journals. Benjamin performed over 500 Steinach operations in new York (unlike Steinach who never did the surgery himself), but many US doctors, especially Morris Fishbein at the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) violently opposed the operation as quackery.

Benjamin had many rich, powerful and famous patients, and himself became rich and a celebrity. He had a twelve-room suite of offices at 728 Park Avenue at 71st Street, (Google street view) and he lived in a deluxe duplex apartment with a sweeping marble staircase. He had servants and a chauffeur.

Along with Steinach, Benjamin pioneered an equivalent operation for women, diathermy, applied to one ovary, supplemented by x-ray treatment of the area. The prolific and celebrated novelist, Gertrude Atherton, then in her sixties, credited Benjamin’s treatment in overcoming writer’s block. She wrote the experience into a new novel, Black Oxen, 1923,with a renowned scientist-doctor who was a composite of Steinach and Benjamin. The novel was filmed the same year.

Harry married in 1925.  Six months later Harry’s mother, Bertha, came from Germany to live with them after Harry's father died. (Person:359)

Atherton continued as a devoted patron, and introduced Benjamin to San Francisco society. This led to his summertime practice in San Francisco that he continued for 37 years. Until Atherton died in 1948, his first dinner in San Francisco was always with her. Benjamin also visited Europe nearly every summer during the inter-war period.

Steinach arranged for Benjamin to meet Sigmund Freud. They both had had the Steinach operation. Benjamin mentioned his analysis with Kronfeld, but Freud regarded him as a ‘very bad character’. Benjamin made the joke that disharmony of the emotions may well be caused by dishormony of the endocrines. He also revealed to Freud that he had impotence problems with his wife. Freud leapt to the conclusion that Benjamin was a latent homosexual. As he regarded himself as a ladies’ man this annoyed Benjamin, and was the start of his deploring psychoanalysis as unscientific.

Carla Van Crist, who was one of Hirschfeld's patients, later claimed that she had visited Benjamin in his New York office and been advised to go to Berlin, but Benjamin did not recall this.

Benjamin gave papers again at a Hirschfeld-arranged conference, and at two conferences, the first in 1926, arranged by Hirschfeld’s opponent, Albert Moll on geriatric and potency problems. One of the latter conferences was in London, and Benjamin established a friendship with Norman Haire.

In 1929 Benjamin had dinner at the Algonquin Hotel with Ben Lindsey, judge and author of The Companionate Marriage, the night before Lindsay attended service at the Cathedral of St John the Divine where he was denounced and calumnied, and arrested for disturbing a church service.

Benjamin, Hirschfeld, Thorek - Chicago 1930
In 1930 Harry and Gretchen were largely responsible for arranging Magnus Hirschfeld’s visit to the US. In New York he stayed at their home and gave 'private lectures' in Benjamin's office. Benjamin continued with him to Chicago where Max Thorek, also a Berlin emigrant, was the host. In 1933 Benjamin attempted, unsuccessfully, to organize a congress of the World League for Sexual Reform in Chicago.

Benjamin was one of the few doctors to speak up in favor of prostitutes in this period. He also used his good relationships with prostitutes to arrange therapy for inhibited young men who could not otherwise function. This was many years before Masters and Johnson contemplated doing the same thing.

Benjamin’s private practice with wealthy patients continued paying very well until the late 1930s. Benjamin was also the consulting endocrinologist at City College in New York. However new physicians were also offering the same services, and, ironically, Benjamin had arranged financing from his wealthy patients for Casimir Funk, the Polish biochemist, then in Paris, who first isolated androgen from human urine. Benjamin was one of the first to inject himself with the extract. From then androgen treatments would replace the Steinach operation. In addition psychoanalysis was becoming the fashionable alternate treatment.

In 1937 Benjamin visited Havelock Ellis at home in London, only two years before Ellis died.

One of Benjamin’s patients was Otto Spengler, who had been featured as an example of a transvestite in a 1913 paper by Bernard Talmey. However only in 1938, while treating him for arthritis, did Benjamin realize that he was a transvestite. At Spengler’s request he prescribed the new German drug Progynon and x-ray sterilization of the testicles.

Vienna, March 1938
Benjamin was in Vienna on 12 March 1938 when German troops arrived to enforce the Anschluss. Steinach and his wife happened to be in Switzerland at that date, and wisely chose not to return home.

The gynecologist and hiker Robert Dickinson knew Benjamin and in 1945 he introduced him to Alfred Kinsey . Three years later Kinsey and Benjamin were both staying at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco. Kinsey had encountered the person later referred to as Sally Barry, who had a strong desire to be a women, and asked Benjamin to examine her. The mother wished to help rather than punish her child. Benjamin realized that this was a different condition to ‘transvestism’ which was the only classification then in use. He prescribed the newly available estrogen, and helped arrange for Sally and her mother to go to Germany for surgery, but then lost contact.

The next year, 1949, Kinsey sent the married couple Barbara and Lauren Wilcox who were both advanced in their transitions. Benjamin became their hormone provider and later introduced them to Elmer Belt for surgery. Then Kinsey introduced transvestite organizer Louise Lawrence who had been working with Karl Bowman at the Langley Porter Clinic. She informed Benjamin about David Cauldwell’s earlier writings on the topic. She introduced him to other trans women, including Bambi and Coccinelle in Paris.

In 1951 a new patient, Frank, arrived. He thought that he was sick to have transvestic urges, and equivocated for 20 years. Benjamin at first counselled him himself, and then referred him to the psychotherapist Albert Ellis. Benjamin and Ellis also co-wrote an article on prostitution that year.

In 1952 Norman Haire visited New York and was honored in Benjamin’s office. Shortly afterwards he was taken ill with heart problems, and had to be hospitalized. Benjamin and Kinsey together visited him in hospital. He died a few months later back home in London.

Benjamin was now 67 years old and about to launch a new career.

When did Benjamin become a US citizen? When he travelled in Germany and Austria in the 1930s, did he use a German or a US passport?

More on Voronoff. His second wife was Evelyn Bostwick, the mother of transman Joe Carstairs, the power boat racer. Voronoff would validate his claims to rejuvenation in 1934, at the age of 68, by marrying his third wife, the 20-year-old Gerti Schwartz, related to Romanian royalty.

Harry was 40 when he married Gretchen, two decades younger. From her name one would assume a probability that she was of German descent. Harry described himself to Ethel Person as a 'ladies' man', however the only previous actual girlfriend mentioned in the accounts that I have read was the one who introduced him to Kriminal-Kommissar Dr Kopp, and her name remains unknown. Ethel Person (p359) summarized what he told her: "But there was blight in his life, both romantic and sexual.  He describes his love life as always tragic, beginning from the time he was fifteen and fell in love with a thirty-year-old actress.  It was love at a distance since she was engaged to a German officer.  His second great love was a lesbian, a musical comedy star, and their relationship lasted ten years with never a kiss.  He describes  himself as having long relationships and staying in love with hopeless cases. He married Gretchen, a woman he never fell in love with but whom he felt responsible for."  There are other hints about Harry's private life: Ihlenfeld told Person that Gretchen had told him that after Harry's mother came to stay, "their bedroom door remained open" (again p359). Green told Meyerowitz that some patients and colleagues knew that Harry had a fetish for long hair on women (p217). Unlike Freud I will not draw any conclusions.  Unlike many marriages contracted upon love, the Benjamins remained married 61 years until Harry's death.

In both the First and the Second World War the US interned German citizens and German-Americans. Benjamin doesn't seem to have encountered this.

In Richard Docter's book on Christine Jorgensen, Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco has become the St Francis Hotel. !!

By tradition the hereditary part of Judaism is passed via the mother and thereby Benjamin was not Jewish. However to the Nazis he would have been, from his father's origins, certainly Jewish. Benjamin had two younger siblings, Walter and Edith, who lived till their nineties. Were they in Germany in the Nazi period? Did they follow him and their mother to New York? The accounts that I have read did not even ask this question. And what about other relatives on his father's side? Did they flee or die? We know about Erich Benjamin, mentioned in the notes to Part 1, who did flee to the US, although we don't know if he was related.

Neither de.Wikipedia nor en.Wikipedia on Eugen Steinach care to mention his US disciple.

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