Baer was born in Arolson, Hesse, Germany, to a Jewish family, and was assigned female and raised with the name Martha. After a childhood of not fitting in with other girls and preferring to play with boys, her puberty was odd in that she grew facial hair, her voice changed and she never menstruated or grew breasts - she thought that perhaps she had tuberculosis.
After school, Baer was trained in economics, sociology and pedagogy in Berlin and Hamburg, and became a social worker and feminist activist in B’nai B'rith working against the sexual trafficking of Jewish women. In 1904 she was sent to Lemberg (later Lwow, now Lviv which was then in Galacia) but was sent back early after censure about her male body language.
By 1905 Baer was living as male. He smoked and drank beer, and was in love with Beile Heilpern Waldberg from Czernowitz, a married woman whom he had met in Lemberg, and who had been supportive in his gender change. They were even contemplating joint suicide, when Karl was hit by a tram and was admitted to the Berlin Charité Hospital. Inspection resulted in him being moved - under protest - to the women’s special ward. He came to the attention of Magnus Hirschfeld, whose opinion that he was mainly male was seconded by Dr Iwan Bloch. Surgery by Dr Georg Merzbach corrected his body to male as far as was possible in 1905, releasing a penis and one testicle. Baer was discharged with a medical certificate confirming his male identity, and an endorsement by Magnus Hirschfeld. In the jargon of the time, he was deemed to be a male pseudo-hermaphrodite.
To get the State to endorse the change of documented birth sex, a wax form was made of the corrected external genital area and taken with a report by Hirschfeld to be inspected by the Minister for the Interior, and since now this was clearly not a female, the Minister conceded to the request for a correction of documents. Hirschfeld gave a lecture on Baer and two others, with Baer present, for Wochenschrift für soziale Medizin, Hygiene und Medizinalstatistik, 1905, using the pseudonym “Anna Laabs” for Baer, and worked with him on his book, a semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical account published under the name N. O. Body. The book was called Aus eines Mannes Mädchenjahren (Memoirs of a Man’s Maiden Years). The account in the book said that Body was French Catholic rather than Jewish, born in Bergheim in Saxony-Thuringia, and named Nora later Norbert.
In January 1907 Baer received his revised birth certificate. He gave his name as Karl M Baer. Initially the M was for Martha, but later he said that it was for Max.
He wrote accounts of the trafficking in women for the magazine Arena and for the journal Sexualwissenschaft Nr. 9, and then a book on the topic, published by Seemann Nachf in Berlin, all in 1908.
Beile sued for divorce from her husband, Herr Waldberg, who raised the question whether Beile’s affair with Baer should equally be considered adultery as Baer was apparently actually a man. The divorce was granted and she and Karl married. However she died of pneumonia in March 1909. This led to a new court case in that the Heilpern family contested - albeit unsuccessfully - Baer’s inheritance on the grounds that he was not a man.
Karl then married Beile’s friend Elza.
The N. O. Body book sold well and was positively reviewed even in the conservative press. It was reprinted at least six times. It was made into a film twice, in 1913 and 1919 (the latter directed by Karl Grune)
Baer worked for the Victoria Versicherungs AG of Berlin selling life insurance until 1911 when he started working for the Berlin Jewish community. In 1920 he became the director of the Berlin B’nai B'rith. In 1937 B’nai B'rith was raided by the Gestapo and Baer was violently interrogated. On release he sold his apartment and he and Elza moved to Palestine.
He again worked as an insurance agent, and then as an accountant. He had an affair with his secretary Gitla. Elsa died in 1947, and three years after that Karl married Gitla.
Karl died in 1956 age 71. His tombstone says that M is for Meir.
- Magnus Hirschfeld: "Drei Fälle von irrtümlicher Geschlechtsbestimmung". Medizinische Reform. Wochenschrift für soziale Medizin, Hygiene und MedizinalstatistikXV, 1906, 51:
- O. Body: Aus eines Mannes Mädchenjahren. Vorwort von Rudolf Presber. Nachwort von Dr. med. Magnus Hirschfeld.Riecke, 1907.
- Baer: “Mädchenhandel”. Arena.3. 5 August 1908: 549–555.
- M. Baer-Berlin. “Über den Mädchenhandel”.Zeitschrift für Sexualwissenschaft Nr. 9, 1908: 513–528.
- M, Baer. Der internationale Mädchenhandel. Seemann Nachf, 1908.
- Seigfried Dessauer (dir). Aus eines Mannes Mädchenjahren. Based on the book by N.O.Body. Germany 21mins 1913.
- Magnus Hirschfeld. Sexualpathologie : Ein Lehrbuch für Ärzte und Studierende. 2. Teil: Sexuelle Zwischenstufen: Das männliche Weib und der weibliche Mann. Marcus & Webers Verleag,1918: 44-8.
- Paul Legband & Karl Grune (dir). Aus eines Mannes Mädchenjahren. Scr: Karl Grune & Beate Chess, based on the book by N.O.Body, with Erika Glässner as NO Body . Germany75 mins
- O. Body: Aus eines Mannes Mädchenjahren. Reprint Hermann Simon mit einer Vorbemerkung und einem abschließenden Beitrag: „Wer war N.O. Body?“ Ed. Hentrich, 1993.
- Sander L. Gilman. Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999: 281-2.
- Myriam Spörri. “N. O. Body, Magnus Hirschfeld und die Diagnose des Geschlechts: Hermaphroditismus um 1900”. L’Homme Z F G, 14,2, 2003.
- N O Body. Memoirs of a Man’s Maiden Years.English Translation by Deborah Simon of Aus eines Mannes Mädchenjahren. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
- Sander L Gilman. “Whose Body is it Anyway? Hermaphrodites, Gays and Jews in N. O. Body’s Germany” in Simon, 2006.
- Hermann Simon. “Afterword: In Search of Karl Baer” in Simon, 2005.
- Petra Henderson, Original English Wikipedia page on Karl M Baer. 3 November 2008. Online.
- Jana Funka. “The Case of Karl M.[artha] Baer: Narrating ‘Uncertain’ Sex”. In Ben Davies & Jana Funke (eds) Sex, Gender and Time in Fiction and Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011: 132-153.
- Geertje Mak. “Scripting the Self: N.O. Body’s Autobiography”. In Doubting Sex: Inscriptions, Bodies and Selves in Nineteenth-Century Hernaphrodite Case Histories. Manchester University Press, 2012.
- David A. Brenner. “A German-Jewish hermaphrodite: or what sexology contributed to B’Nai B’rith”. In German-Jewish Popular Culture Before the Holocaust: Kafka's Kitsch. Routledge, 2014: 41-9. .
- “Karl M. Baer”. In: Persönlichkeiten in Berlin 1825 - 2006. Erinnerungen an Lesben, Schwule, Bisexuelle, trans- und intergeschlechtliche Menschen. Senatsverwaltung für Arbeit, Integration und Frauen, Berlin 2015, S. 10–11.PDF.
- Michaela Koch. “N.O. Body and the Making of a True Man”. In Discursive Intersexions: Daring Bodies between Myth, Medicine, and Memoir. Transcript-Verlag, 2017: 75-111.
- Ofer Oderet. “Recalling the First Sex Change Operation in History: A German-Israeli Insurance Salesman: The long-forgotten story of a German Jew who was born as Martha and escaped the Nazis as Karl, rediscovered by a Tel Aviv University student”. Haaretz, May 10, 2018. Online.
While it is always difficult to interpret old medical accounts in terms of modern diagnoses, it is plausible that Baer had 5-Alpha Reductase Deficiency, which would have been hard for a non-specialist doctor to spot in 1885 as it was not officially recognised until 1961.
No explanation is given of how he avoided conscription 1914-18.
Geertje Mak compares Baer to Herculine Barbin: “The protagonists of N. O. Body’s autobiography Aus einem Mannes Mädchenjahren (Memoirs of a Man’s Maiden Years), published in 1907, and of Barbin’s autobiographical writings have a lot in common. Both were raised as girls and only discovered that they were male in their twenties. Both had already had a passionate love affair with a woman for quite some time before the medical discovery of the error of sex. For both the breakthrough came after a confession of their life story, which in both cases led to a medical examination. Both had been more or less aware that there had been a mistake with regard to their sex, although Barbin seemed to have been more clear about the exact nature of the mistake than N. O. Body. Both were relatively well educated and obviously modelled their narratives on ﬁctional or (auto)biographical examples they themselves had read.”
The major difference of course - which Mak does not mention - is that Barbin did not want to be a man, did not have a male gender identity, but was compelled into being a man. Thus Barbin used suicide to escape from masculinity, while Baer thrived as a man. Some writers compare Baer to David Reimer assuming that biology will out, that a biological male cannot be raised successfully as female. However Reimer was not intersex, he was a cis male. Mak’s comparison of Barbin and Baer is valid in that both had comparable intersex conditions, but what the comparison should show is that biology is only part of what we are. The self-fashioning resulting from biology and environment and choice produces different results.
Petra Henderson in her original version of the EN.Wikipedia page on Baer wrote: “Copies of the medical publications obtained by the University Medical College of Oregon enabled at least one of their female graduates (Dr. Alan L. Hart) to get his sex change surgery in the University hospital in 1917”. It is possible that Dr J Allen Gilbert did read German, and had come across Hirschfeld’s lecture to Wochenschrift für soziale Medizin, Hygiene und Medizinalstatistik 1906, but it was more likely to have read Hirschfeld’s Die Transvestiten, 1910. In either case the diagnosis and treatment were very different between Baer and Hart. Hart did menstruate, did not have a testicle and underwent a hysterectomy.
IMDB gives the plot of the 1919 film as: “A child born without a clear gender is raised by the father as a boy, later by the uncle as a girl and dissected after death” - which is a further deviation from Baer’s life.
Of the three biographies of Magnus Hirschfeld, that of Charlotte Wolff, Magnus Hirschfeld,1986, of Elena Mancini, Magnus Hirschfeld and the Quest for Sexual Freedom, 2010 and of Heike Bauer, The Hirschfeld Archives, 2017, none make any mention of Martha/Karl Baer, Anna Laabs or N. O. Body.