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The First Sex Changes: How Laura Became Michael and Robert Became Roberta

Wednesday 6 April 2016

1 Hour


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Liz Hodgkinson – author of a new book about the first woman to undergo a female-to-male sex change – and Diana Cowell – daughter of the first man to undergo a male-to-female sex change – discuss the interlinked stories and the impact of sex change on friends and families.

Hodgkinson is author of From a Girl to a Man: How Laura Became Michael. Laura was born into the Anglo-Irish aristocracy in 1915 and won a place at St Anne’s College, Oxford. There she realised something was seriously wrong. A sympathetic doctor, Sir Harold Gillies, performed 13 operations on her to turn her into a man. The now Michael Dillon trained as a doctor and, after his love for former spitfire pilot Robert Cowell – later Roberta after a sex change – was not returned, he spent five years as a ship’s doctor. He disappeared to become a Tibetan monk after his story was made public.

Robert Cowell was Diana’s father. He abandoned his family in 1948 to undergo a sex change and the family never heard from him again.  Diana was only ten when the sensational story was published in the Picture Post. Diana has been married four times, all ending in divorce. She made several attempts to contact Roberta but never received a reply. Diana took part in a television documentary this year, Sex Change Spitfire Ace, in which she explained her sadness in never knowing her father. Roberta, who died in 2011, always denied she was the father of Diana and her sister Anne.

Hodgkinson is a prolific writer who has published biographies, including Alex Williams: the Survival of an Artist, health books, lifestyle books and property guides. From a Girl to a Man: How Laura Became Michael led to the Channel 4 documentary Sex Change Spitfire Ace and has been optioned as a Hollywood film.

Diana Cowell is now aged 71. She is on a quest to find out as much as she can about the father who never wanted to know her.

here they talk to writer and journalist Paul Blezard.