Dillon, Michael (1915–62), physician, writer, Buddhist novice-monk and the first person known to surgically transition from female to male, was born Laura Maud Dillon on 1 May 1915 in Ladbroke Grove, London, England. Dillon was the second child of Robert Arthur Dillon (1865–1925), former Royal Navy lieutenant and heir to the baronetcy of Lismullen, Co. Meath, and Laura Maud MacLiver (née Reese, 1888–1915), a widow from Australia of German and Irish parentage. Dillon's mother died from sepsis just ten days after his birth.
Early life and education
Rejected emotionally by a bereaved and alcoholic father, as an infant Dillon was sent with his older brother, Robert (‘Bobby’) William Charlier Dillon (1914–83), to be raised by his elderly grandparents and two unmarried aunts, ‘Toto’ and Daisy, in the family home in Folkestone, Kent. Dillon described the atmosphere of the restrictive household as ‘Victorian, or at best Edwardian, since two generations separated the new arrivals from the youngest of the resident aunts’ (Dillon/Jivaka, 37). Educated first at home by a governess, Dillon attended Brampton Down, an exclusive Folkestone girls' school (1923–34).
In 1925 Dillon’s father died suddenly, aged sixty. Three weeks later a member of the Irish branch of the family, Sir John Dillon, 7th Baronet Lismullen, also died. As Sir John had no male children and Robert Arthur Dillon had been his heir, Michael Dillon’s brother Bobby, then aged just eleven, became the 8th (and final) Baronet Lismullen (1925), inheriting the 360-acre family estate in Co. Meath. Lismullen House, originally a fourteenth century convent, had been burned down by ‘Sinn Féiners’ in April 1924, but was later rebuilt (Dillon/Jivaka, 63). For the next few years, Dillon spent at least two weeks of his summer holidays at the estate.
From early childhood Dillon struggled within the socially defined female gender role, and lived as boyish a life as he could, preferring carpentry to needlework, and learning to shoot at Lismullen. However, in his late teens, just prior to sitting an entrance exam for Oxford University, he had what he described as a ‘shattering experience’, when a boy held a gate open for him and he had the realisation that he was thought of as a woman, while he himself had ‘never thought of myself as such despite being technically a girl’. The experience prompted a realisation that ‘life could never be the same again. People thought that I was a woman. But I wasn’t. I was just me’ (Dillon/Jivaka, 73). Thus began the extremely difficult next chapter of his life.
Dillon left Folkestone for Oxford shortly afterwards, attending St Anne's, a women-only college (1934–8) where he read theology (he had envisioned a future as a Christian missionary), before transferring to classics or ‘greats’, taking a third-class honours degree (1938). At Oxford, Dillon encountered feminist and lesbian women, and assumed himself to be lesbian too. But, while he had fallen in (unrequited) love with at least two women, the label did not sit comfortably with him.
As president of the university women's boat club, Dillon made substantial strides toward securing acceptance of women's rowing as a serious university sport. When he joined the team, they would row downstream, dressed in ladylike attire. Under Dillon’s watch they rowed upstream like the men’s team and were allowed to wear a sports uniform. Winning a rowing blue in 1935 and again in 1936, he was stroke on the university crew that won every domestic race it entered. Shortly after the introduction of the new uniforms, a photograph of ‘L. M. Dillon’ appeared in the Daily Mail with the caption ‘How unlike a woman!’ (18 Nov. 1937). Subsequently Dillon received ‘acid letters about making a freak out of myself’ from embarrassed family members (Dillon/Jivaka, 78).
Aside from rowing, Dillon was largely uncomfortable in female company and at university made a male friend, named as ‘Bill’ in his autobiography, who accepted Dillon’s wish to live like a man, assisted him with purchases of men’s clothing and smuggled him incognito into male-only Oxford boxing matches. Dillon wore his hair short and, becoming more audacious in his final year, bought a motorcycle.
After university, Dillon worked in a laboratory in Gloucestershire as an assistant in post-mortem brain research (1938–9). Living in a small village near the laboratory, he had to return to wearing skirts, but kept his short hair, becoming a much talked of oddity in the local area. In 1938 or early 1939 Dillon became aware of a Bristol clinician who was investigating the use of testosterone to treat women suffering from extreme menstrual symptoms. Testosterone had been successfully synthesised four years previously, and the experimental treatment was found to produce side effects in some patients, including deepening of the patients’ voices and reduction in breast size. Dillon discussed receiving higher doses of testosterone with the doctor, who asked him to first have a consultation with a psychiatrist. The doctor subsequently refused to treat Dillon but did supply him with testosterone pills for self-administration.
The psychiatrist with whom Dillon consulted subsequently gossiped with a doctor at Dillon’s workplace, who then spread the news of his desire to change sex. To avoid mockery, Dillon left the laboratory and moved to Bristol, where he took a job working in a motor garage. He continued taking testosterone and after a few months could more easily pass as a man, his body and voice having changed considerably. The men he worked with in the garage, however, mocked him relentlessly for ‘four miserable years’ (Dillon/Jivaka, 91).
The second world war broke not long after Dillon moved to Bristol; to earn extra money he became the garage’s fire watcher, sleeping there at night. Eventually his employer agreed that it would be simpler if they stopped calling him ‘Miss Dillon’ and instead to use his preferred male name and pronouns, in front of customers at least. During this time, Dillon began to study contemporary medical texts on the therapeutic use of hormones, as well as studies on homosexuality and intersexuality.
In 1942 he began to suffer from hypoglycaemia, which caused him to faint and sustain injuries. On the second such occasion, he was admitted to the Royal Infirmary in Bristol, fortuitously into the care of a doctor who took an interest in his gender-related difficulties. The doctor (whose name Dillon withheld in his autobiography) performed a double mastectomy and supplied him with paperwork to have his name and sex changed on his official records. The following year Dillon was able to legally become Laurence Michael, male, one of a fortunate few who were able to make such a change at the time.
The Royal Infirmary doctor also put Dillon in touch with pioneering plastic surgeon Sir Harold Gillies, to investigate the possibility of a phalloplasty. Gillies worked with the severely injured, helping to reconstruct body parts and facial features. During the first world war he had reconstructed penises for severely injured soldiers, and he had also performed genital surgery on intersex patients. Gillies agreed to treat Dillon whenever the second world war ended, and he had concluded his treatment of soldiers from that conflict.
Having spent years immersed in profoundly personal medical research, and inspired by Gillies’s work, Dillon decided to train to be a physician. After preparative study at Bristol’s Merchant Venturer’s Technical College, he enrolled as a medical student at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) (1945–51), under his new legal name. With the help of a former tutor, Dillon was able to change his Oxford records to state that L. M. Dillon had attended the all-male Brasenose college, not St Anne’s. Now living fully as Michael, he cultivated a reputation as a ‘stodgy bachelor’ at TCD, aided by the fact that he was considerably older than many of his fellow students (Kennedy, 9). He occasionally went out dancing with women but did not enter any relationships for fear of exposure, often treating women in a ‘rough, brotherly fashion’ to dissuade any romantic ideas (Dillon/Jivaka, 125). He also joined the university boat club, winning a rowing blue with the male team – he was, quite possibly, the only person to have done so as both a woman and a man. Though still fearful of discovery, Dillon experienced intense relief in simply being able to walk down the street and be accepted with disinterest as an ordinary man. His brother Bobby, however, refused to acknowledge his transition and warned him to keep his connection to the Dillons of Lismullen a secret. His aunts reluctantly accepted him, but they too insisted on secrecy.
From 1946, Dillon travelled to England between terms to undergo treatment with Gillies at his private hospital at Rooksdown House, Basingstoke. Using the cover of a diagnosis of acute hypospadias, a common congenital condition among males, Dillon underwent at least thirteen separate procedures over four years. Gillies used skin from Dillon’s legs and stomach to create a penis and Dillon suffered greatly from these skin removals, with painful infections in his legs necessitating the use of a cane for a time – covered by a lie about injuries sustained during the Bristol blitz. When his surgeries were completed, Dillon became the first recorded transgender man to undergo so complete a physical sex reassignment.
Meeting Roberta Cowell
Prior to his surgical transition, Dillon published Self: a study in ethics and endocrinology (1946), a book largely written during his time fire-watching at the Bristol garage. In it he argued, without revealing his personal interest, for a greater understanding and social tolerance of those whose identities do not fit into the binary of male and female, and in his discussion of gender identity he specifically distinguished the category of transsexuality (though that term was not coined for another twenty years) from homosexuality. He called for a new form of patient-led medical ethics, whereby a patient’s deepest urges were acknowledged and allowed to inform their own treatment – including sex change surgery.
Though obscure, the book came to the attention of Roberta Cowell, who became the first British trans woman to undergo male to female sex reassignment surgery. From a privileged background and married with two children before the war, Cowell had begun taking oestrogen in the late 1940s but, unlike Dillon, was unable to find a doctor willing to perform sex-change surgery - orchidectomy (the surgical removal of testicles) was then a legally perilous procedure in Britain. Cowell and Dillon entered a frank correspondence before meeting in London in 1950, where Dillon disclosed his own history. He quickly fell in love with Cowell, and it seems likely that he was encouraged in thinking that his affections were reciprocated.
Despite introducing Cowell to Gillies and other doctors, the problem of orchidectomy persisted. Though not yet a licensed physician and with little surgical experience, it appears that Dillon performed the illegal operation on Cowell himself. Shortly afterwards Cowell was medically certified as female. When Dillon completed his studies in Dublin in 1951 he proposed to Cowell, who turned him down. His biography made no mention of their connection.
Medical career and spiritual pursuits
Dillon remained in Ireland until 1952, working as a resident house physician in a small north Dublin hospital (1951–2). Inspired by Gillies’s work at Rooksdown, Dillon introduced occupational therapy for long-term patients, which generated enough income to fund social activities. He also regularly took long-term patients out for picnics, arranged that radio headsets be supplied for every hospital bed, and set up a lending library. Deeply affected by the poverty of one patient, a teenage tuberculosis survivor, Dillon thereafter donated a tenth of his salary, wherever he worked, to young students in need of financial support. When his contract at the hospital ended, he signed a one-year contract as ship’s physician with the British India Steam Navigation Company, taking further short-term positions aboard ships for the next few years.
Having lived exclusively as a man for several years, in 1953 Dillon, in defiance of his brother’s wishes, requested that the family details in Debrett’s peerage be updated to reflect that Baronet Lismullen had a living brother rather than a living sister. Presenting his birth certificate to Debrett’s sympathetic editor, the change was made and Dillon was assured that Burke’s peerage would follow suit. This action quietly announced him as heir presumptive to the baronetcy held by his brother, who had married in 1947 but remained childless.
Beginning to move away from Christian ideology, Dillon embarked on a spiritual quest inspired by Greek-Armenian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff and Russian philosopher P. D. Ouspensky. He also came under the sway of Lobsang Rampa, whose ‘autobiography’ (The third eye) told an elaborate story of a Tibetan lama endowed with magical powers via a gruesome surgery to reveal his third eye. Rampa, who was actually British and a plumber’s son, was then living in Howth, Co. Dublin, and was later widely disparaged as a hoaxer. After a two-week visit with his new guru in Howth, Dillon was persuaded to travel to India to learn meditation. Despite Rampa’s unmasking a short time later, Dillon still retained faith in his teacher’s fundamental message, as evidenced in Dillon’s self-published volume Poems of truth (1957).
Exposure and travel to India
Dillon next took a position aboard the City of Bath (1958), which regularly travelled between the US and India. In India he made a short trip to Bodh Gaya, a Buddhist pilgrimage site, and there encountered Dhardo Rimpoche, a Tibetan monk who invited him to visit Kalimpong when he next returned. By mid-1958 the story of his sex-change had emerged in Britain, as a result of the discrepancy between the Lismullen baronetcy details in Debrett’s and Burke’s peerage, which had not been updated as promised. Tracked down by the press while his ship was docked in Baltimore, Dillon gave a brief interview to reporters from the Baltimore Sun and posed for photographs.
Unnerved by the attention, Dillon resigned when the City of Bath returned to India and sought out Dhardo Rimpoche in Kalimpong. Rimpoche in turn directed Dillon to a Theravada Buddhist vihara (monastery) run by Sangharakshita, an English monk. Though Theravada was a strictly male-only community, Dillon confided his history to Sangharakshita and asked to be renamed so he could give up his troubled identity. Sangharakshita obliged with ‘Jivaka’, the name of a physician to the Buddha (used hereafter in place of Michael Dillon). Jivaka learned meditation and was included by Sangharakshita in ritual practices, before studying Buddhism in earnest at Sarnath. There he became a novice monk, taking a vow to abstain from holding property; he wrote to his lawyers in England instructing them to give away his savings and inheritances (amounting to over £20,000) to charity, effectively impoverishing himself.
After just a few months of study Dillon wrote and published Practicing the Dhammapada (1959) and Growing up in Buddhism (1960), an English language primer for teenagers. Both were printed in India only. Though he briefly returned to Sangharakshita’s vihara in Kalimpong, the two fell out and Jivaka returned to Sarnath. There he continued to write, producing articles for the English Buddhist journal Middle Way as well as Indian publications.
Quest for Buddhist ordination
Through his study, Dillon discovered that in addition to the prohibition on women joining the order, the Theravada monastic code also forbade members of the ‘third sex’ from ordination. When he confided his past in the monastery’s leadership, he was informed that he would never receive ordination into the Theravada Buddhist community. Tibetan practitioners in Sarnath seemed more accommodating to his ‘third sex’ status, however, and his request for ordination seemed set to be granted. Jivaka asked Sangharakshita to attend the ordination ceremony; Sangharakshita instead wrote to inform the Tibetans of Jivaka’s history, and the ordination was cancelled.
Jivaka next reached out to the leading diplomat of the Ladakh region, sharing his full story. His requests for entry to the region (with a three-month visa), and for ordination (after the ‘third sex’ controversy had blown over), were both granted. With China claiming sovereignty over Ladakh, western travellers there were often suspected as spies. Jivaka entered the Gelug monastery at Rizong in Ladakh as the lowest rank of novice monk in early 1960. Unusually, he was allowed access to the monastery’s library of ancient scrolls, something usually reserved for ordained monks. Unable to secure an extension to his visa, Jivaka was forced to leave Rizong, but was assured that if he were able to return he would be granted higher ordination.
Returning to Sarnath, he finalised work on his Life of Milarepa (published 1962), which updated an existing English translation about the life of the eleventh-century yogi. He published under the name Lobzang Jivaka, in honour of his first Tibetan teacher at Sarnath, Lama Lobzang. That same year he published an account of his time at Rizong, Imji Getsul: An English Buddhist in a Tibetan monastery, which was bought by Routledge in England.
His general evasiveness about his past did not help his petitions for readmission to Ladakh, and a pro-communist newspaper published a story in which he was branded a spy sent by the Indians to monitor the Chinese in the area (prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru himself defended Jivaka against these charges in parliament). When a local newspaper published a story in 1961 about the mysterious Jivaka, claiming that he was a ‘lady doctor’ who had a sex-change, Jivaka prepared to break his silence himself by completing the autobiography he had begun some months prior. He sent the manuscript to his agent in May 1962 and headed to Kashmir to make another attempt at securing a visa for Ladakh.
Death and legacy
Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka died just a few days later on 15 May 1962 at Dalhousie, a hill station at the border of Kashmir, two weeks after his forty-seventh birthday. His cause of death is unknown, though the hardship and hunger of monastic life had taken a serious toll on his health and he had
been admitted to a charity hospital in Sarnath in 1961, suffering from malnutrition and typhoid fever; it is likely that his health continued to be poor. According to Sangharakshita, a rumour circulated that Jivaka had been poisoned. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered in the Himalayas.
When Jivaka’s agent, John Johnson, received the manuscript of his autobiography, Jivaka’s brother Bobby demanded it be burned and threatened legal retribution if it were to be published. Johnson ignored his demands but was unable to find a publisher. Subsequently consulted by Dillon’s biographers, Liz Hodgkinson (1989) and Pagan Kennedy (2007), Jivaka’s manuscript was finally published in 2017 (Out of the ordinary: a life of gender and spiritual transitions).
Dillon is thought to be the first trans man to undergo a full surgical transition, and, it seems, also played a significant role in helping Roberta Cowell to become the first trans woman to fully transition in Britain. He is also remarkable as one of the earliest Westerners to seek ordination into Tibetan Buddhism.