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29 June 2018

Charles Wolf (? – 1965) sex-change surgeon

Charles Wolf was a prominent surgeon in La Chaux-de-Fonds, the famed watch-making town in the canton of Neuchâtel, in French-speaking Switzerland.

In 1941 he received a referral from a Geneva psychiatrist who had treated Arlette Leber with psychotherapy supplemented with ovarian hormones, but without success. Leber, who had read of earlier surgical sex changes, threatened suicide if not so changed. Dr Wolf was struck by Leber’s feminine contour of the body and her developed breasts. He agreed to operate. He did an orchiectomy in October 1941, a penectomy in January 1942 and a vaginoplasty in October 1942. The method was that of Dr WF Sneguireff of Paris who had created a vagina for a cis woman in 1898 using a segment of her rectum – Wolf used a segment of Leber’s intestine. The operation did not go well and Leber had to spend five weeks in hospital and then another five weeks under close medical supervision at home. In 1944 a Cantonal Court approved her petition for a change of civic status to female.

Wolf’s next trans patient is known only as S. S., born 1908, despite a strong yearning to be female from an early age had married, and they had a son in 1935. In 1947 S. did an auto-penectomy with an axe, and a summoned surgeon did an emergency completion. In 1951, Dr Wolf put finishing touches to the plastic procedures. However vaginoplasty was not deemed to be necessary. Despite being married and a father, S. was granted a change of civic status in 1951.

J. is the name given to an Italian tailor of female clothing who had moved to Switzerland, because they knew ‘how to do that sort of thing’. While living in Geneva, he heard of the work of Dr Wolf, and rushed to La Chaux-de-Fonds and secured an appointment. J. like Leber threatened suicide if denied surgery. Despite financial problems (J. being Italian was not financed by the Swiss state), an orchiectomy and a penectomy had been done by July 1951. J. continued to pester Wolf and his colleagues until they agreed to do a vaginoplasty, which was done in October 1953. However the sutures did not hold properly and J. was left with a small unhealed area that was still present in January 1956.

Dr Wolf comments in his appendix to de Savitsch’s book:
“A good prognosis can only be made in the case of those true transvestites whose sexual appetite is very slight, and whose modest ambitions may save them from any lack of affective satisfaction. Such patients will be happy after the operation, because their occupations and social environment will at last be in harmony with their nature. The patient who dreams of leading a woman’s life after undergoing the operation is likely to regret his decision bitterly. Only those who propose to become old maids can submit to the operation without fear of the consequences.” …
“Once it has been decided that there is a proper case for a change of sex and civic status, castration and amputation of the penis are necessary and, in my opinion, sufficient. Plastic surgery to provide an artificial vagina is a useless luxury: the operation involves considerable risk; if it is to remain serviceable in spite of the natural tendency for the tissues to retract, it will require constant care; even then will it ever be used? If used, it will certainly give more pain than pleasure. For the man who has been turned into a woman, the artificial vagina will be a purely mental satisfaction.”
  • Eugene de Savitsch. Homosexuality, Transvestism and Change of Sex. Springfield Ill: Charles C. Thomas 1958: 60-71, 80, 83, 113-118.

In my timeline of transgender surgery, I stated that Colin Markland at Minnesota Medical School was the first surgeon to use an intestinal segment in creating a vagina for a trans woman. This was wrong in that he was pre-dated by Charles Wolf. The timeline has been corrected.

In the first quote from Wolf he says of a trans woman, "his decision".  This would be a translation from the French "sa décision" which can be translated as his or her decision.   However most doctors in the 1950s did use male pronouns for trans women.

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