February is LGBT History Month, a time to celebrate the contributions of LGBTQ+ people throughout history. To mark this, we have collected the histories of 4 LGBT Britons that changed medicine.
Sophia Jex-Blake (1840 – 1912)
Sophia Jex-Blake (1840 – 1912) was a leading campaigner for allowing women to study medicine, becoming the first women in Scotland to become a doctor.
In 1865, Jex-Blake travelled to the United States to learn about women’s education. In 1867, she wrote directly to the President and Fellows of Harvard University, requesting admission to their medical school. They replied, saying “there is no provision for the education of women in any department of this university”.
Determined, Sophia decided to seek medical training in the UK and in 1869, she applied for medicine at the University of Edinburgh. While the medical faculty voted in favour of allowing her to study medicine, the University Court rejected her application on the grounds that the university could not make the necessary arrangements ‘in the interest of one lady’.
By the summer of that year, a second application was made by her and six other women, known as the Edinburgh Seven, requested matriculation and therefore the right to attend all the classes and exams for a medical degree. This second application was approved by the University Court and the University of Edinburgh became the first British university to admit women.
However, hostility grew. The Edinburgh Seven received obscene letters, were followed home, had fireworks attached to their front door & mud thrown at them. This culminated in the Surgeons’ Hall Riot in 1870, where an angry mob of over two hundred gathered, hurling mud, rubbish and insults at the women during a medical exam.
Although the events became national headlines, influential faculty members appealed to higher courts, which ruled the women should never have been allowed on the course. Their degrees were subsequently withdrawn. Many of the women went on to study at European universities. Women were eventually admitted onto degree programmes at other British universities in 1877, which much credit going to Jex-Blake and the Edinburgh Seven.
Having passed her medical exams at the University of Bern & King’s and Queen’s College of Physicians of Ireland, Sophia became the third women to register as a doctor in the country. In 1879, Jex-Blake returned to Edinburgh, becoming Scotland’s first woman doctor. There, she opened an outpatient clinic where poor women could receive medical attention for a few pence. This expands to a larger premises in 1885, becoming the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women. This was Scotland’s first hospital for women staffed entirely by women.
Jex-Blake is widely believed to have been in a romantic relationship with Dr Margaret Todd, who later wrote an extensive biography of Jex-Blake’s life following her death in 1912.
Michael Dillon (1915 – 1962)
Michael Dillon (1915 – 1962) was the first trans man known to have undergone gender confirmation surgery. While in transition, Dillon wrote the first medical treatise on trans identity and gender affirming treatments.
After graduating from Oxford in 1938, Dillon worked at a laboratory conducting brain research. In 1939, Dillon sought advice from a doctor who had been experimenting with testosterone (first synthesised in 1935). The doctor said he would prescribe Dillon with testosterone if he consulted with a psychiatrist. This psychiatrist went on to out Dillon as trans to his supervisor at the lab, forcing Dillon to relocate to Bristol and take a job at a garage.
During this time, he wrote `Self: A Study in Ethics and Endocrinology`. The book is thought to be one of the first medical works to discuss trans identity and transitioning, distinguishing it from homosexuality, which were often conflated. Dillon laid out arguments for the medical treatment of those experiencing what would later be called “gender incongruence”, the mismatch between the sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity. He discusses the failings of the purely psychotherapeutic treatment endured by those striving to align body with mind.
In 1943, he was able to change his name to Laurence Michael. Between 1945 and 1949, Dillon underwent a total of 13 surgeries over the course of four years, all the while undertaking his own medical education, attending lectures during term time and undergoing surgery during breaks. Over those four years, Dillon went through what would be the world’s first phalloplasty to be utilised as part of someone’s transition.
Dillon would qualify as a doctor in 1951, joining the Merchant Navy as a surgeon, sailing with the navy for six years. However, his Navy days ended abruptly when tabloid journalists tracked him down, outing him as a trans man. Dillon’s sympathetic shipmates kept unscrupulous reporters at bay whilst Dillon contemplated his next move. He decided to take refuge in India, where he was ultimately drawn to studying Buddhism. He became a Tibetan monk and wrote several books on Buddhism for English audiences. Sadly, Dillon’s health declined, and he died in 1962, aged 47.
Oliver Sacks (1933-2015)
Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) was a British neurologist and writer who wrote popular, critically acclaimed books about neurology.
Born in North London, Sacks studied medicine at Queen’s College Oxford, and later the Middlesex hospital, graduating in 1958. After completing his posts in Britain, he moved to the United States in 1961 to study neurology. Following his internship at Mount Zion Hospital, San Francisco, and a residency at UCLA, Sacks moved in 1965 to New York. From 1966, he worked as a consulting neurologist at the Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx and held various academic posts at New York and Columbia universities over the years.
His writing, with his accessible, yet profound accounts of neurological conditions, brought the world of neurology to countless readers. His works have been published in over 25 languages.
His most successful book, Awakenings (1973), focused on the lives of patients with “sleeping sickness”, encephalitis lethargica, keeping them in a comatose state since the disease swept the world at the end of the First World War. The book was adapted into a Harold Pinter play and an Oscar nominated film of the same name.
His numerous other bestsellers including The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (1985) and An Anthropologist on Mars (1995). His books are mostly collections of case studies of people, including himself, with neurological disorders. He also wrote prolifically, writing both peer-reviewed scientific articles and articles for a general audience in places such as the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.
The New York Times called him a “poet laureate of contemporary medicine,” and “one of the great clinical writers of the 20th century”. He received numerous awards and honours, including being made CBE in 2008.
Sacks kept his personal life private, until the publication of his autobiography, On the Move (2015). It told of his experiences of being gay, as well as his 35 years of celibacy until, in 2008, he met his partner, the writer Bill Hayes. They were together until Sack’s death in 2015.
Kevin Fenton (1966 – )
Professor Kevin Fenton (1966-) is a senior public health expert and infectious disease epidemiologist, with a distinguished profile of public health leadership roles on both sides of the Atlantic.
Professor Fenton was born in Glasgow but grew up in Jamaica. Working as a government doctor in Lucea, Jamaica led him to concentrate on public health. After studying at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and University College London, Fenton became a senior lecturer on HIV epidemiology and consultant epidemiologist at the NHS’s Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre. In 2002, he became director of the centre’s HIV and Sexually Transmitted Infections Department.
In 2005, Fenton then moved to the US to work for the national public health agency, the CDC. There, he initially as director of the National Syphilis Elimination Effort, then director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention.
Professor Fenton has since returned to the UK, becoming the Regional Director for London in the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID). Within this role, he acts as public health advisor to the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority.
In 2020, Fenton’s focused on supporting hard-hit minority British communities affected by the pandemic, writing two reports about the health inequalities faced by minority British people. The review led to recommendations which shaped a more equitable COVID-19 pandemic response. This work was recognised with Fenton ranking second in the 2021 edition of the annual Powerlist of the most influential Black Britons.
In December 2021, Professor Fenton was appointed Chief Advisor on HIV to the Government, as well as Chair of the HIV Action Plan Implementation Steering Group to oversee the delivery new HIV strategies for England. Professor Fenton has also been elected to be the next President of the UK Faculty of Public Health, being due to take up the position in June 2022.
Fenton was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2022 New Year Honours for services to public health.