In 1930, with support from her wife and fellow artist Gerda Gottlieb, a 47-year-old Danish transgender artist named Lili Elvenes – born Einar Wegener – travelled to Germany to undergo one of the very first examples of sex reassignment surgery. She had identified as a woman for some time and sought to transition fully by way of procedures that are thought to have included radiation therapy, removal of penis and testicles, and the insertion of a uterus; this in addition to undeveloped ovaries that were found to already exist in Lili’s abdomen. Sadly, the uterine transplant was later rejected by her body and Lili died. Her story was told in Fra mand til kvinde: Lili Elbes bekendelser, a biography edited by Poul Knudsen; an English-language edition soon followed, titled Man Into Woman: The First Sex Change, from which this letter comes, written by Lili to a relative in the midst of the surgery.
Note: In the book, and in the letter, pseudonyms were used to protect the identities of all involved. As a result, Lili Elvenes became, and is still widely known as, Lili Elbes; her birth name, Einar Wegener, became Andreas Sparre; doctors and relatives are also renamed.
(This letter features in the More Letters of Note book alongside many other fascinating pieces of correspondence -- more info at Books of Note. Photo of Lili from Wellcome Images.)
29th January, 1930
You have not heard from me for a long time, because I have been able to tell you nothing good about Lili. From time to time I have been examined by several doctors, but without result. Throughout they prescribed sedative remedies, which left me no better nor wiser than I was before. For I want to know what is happening to me, even if it hurts. After consulting with Grete, Elena took me to one of her personal acquaintances who received me three hours before he was leaving Paris. Then something happened which sounds almost like a miracle! I had a consultation with the famous surgeon and woman’s doctor Professor Werner Kreutz, of Dresden. Strangely enough, he resembled you. He examined me a long time, and then declared that my case was so rare that only one similar case had been known up till now. He added that in the condition in which I am at present, I could hardly be regarded as a living creature, because the ray treatment had been a great mistake, especially as it had not been preceded by microscopical examination. Now he fears that this treatment in the dark may have destroyed my organs – male as well as female. Consequently, he wants me to go to Berlin as quickly as possible for the purpose of a microscopical examination.
Some time afterwards he will operate on me himself. He wants to remove the dead (and formerly imperfect) male organs, and to restore the female organs with new and fresh material. Then it will be Lili who will survive!
Her weak girl’s body will then be able to develop, and she will feel as young as her new and fresh organs. Dear Christian, I am now sitting here and weeping like a child while I am writing you these lines. It seems so like a miracle that I dare not believe it. One thing, however, consoles me – that were it otherwise I must soon die. Grete and I believe we are dreaming, and are fearful of waking. It is too wonderful to think that Lili will be able to live, and that she will be the happiest girl in the world – and that this ghastly nightmare of my life is drawing to an end. This wretched comedy as a man! Without Grete I should have thrown up the sponge long ago. But in these dark days I have had a fresh opportunity of seeing what a splendid girl she is… she is an angel. Overexertions, her own sufferings, have left her unscathed. She has contrived to work for two, now that I am no longer worth much. I do what I am able, of course, and have exhibited and sold with success in all the important salons. But now all this is over. I am no longer fit for anything. I am like a wretched grub, which is waiting to become a butterfly. The operation is urgent, and the doctor would like me to proceed to Berlin immediately, as some twenty days must elapse between the first examination and the operation. And I must be in Dresden on the day he is ready to create Lili. He will send me medicine, which I am to take, in order to support the internal organs and thereby keep me alive until then. For practical reasons I begged for some delay, and I told him that I should prefer so to arrange matters as to proceed to Berlin via Copenhagen, as I wanted first to hold an exhibition in Denmark. I would then proceed from Berlin to Dresden at the beginning of April.
This does not particularly please the doctor; but he understood that I had suggested this for practical reasons.
Now, I do not know whether it is due to excitement, but my condition has worsened to such an extent that I no longer feel able to make preparations for an exhibition and attend to everything it involves – I realize that I have no time to lose.
Hence, I want your help.
Will you lend me the money for the operation and the stay in the nursing home? I do not know how much it will cost. I only know that Elena has so arranged it that the professor is taking an exceptionally low fee. Out of consideration for Grete I dare not take money from our savings; the less so as our trip to Rome and my illness has cost us so much.
I – or we – have deposited many pictures with Messrs. Heyman and Haslund, of Copenhagen, and I estimate their value to be between 7,000 and 10,000 kronen. I do not, however, know what the operation will cost, but I estimate it will come to between 4,000 and 5,000 kronen in all. I give you all these pictures in Denmark by way of security in the event of my death – and in any event. If the affair turns out badly, the pictures can be sold, and if it turns out well, we can soon repay you the money. Our earning powers are good, and we have many large orders.
Tell no one except my sister anything of the contents of this letter, and be good enough to let me know what you decide as quickly as possible, first by telegram and then by letter.
It is only because I have the feeling that death is on my track that I send you this letter. Up till now I have never incurred debts in any quarter. Warmest greetings to you and the sister from Grete and