Thursday, September 28, 2023

Q&A with Alison Li


Photo by Diana Renelli



Alison Li is the author of the new biography Wondrous Transformations: A Maverick Physician, the Science of Hormones, and the Birth of the Transgender Revolution. It focuses on the life of Dr. Harry Benjamin (1885-1986). Li is a historian of science and medicine. Her other books include Women, Health, and Nation.


Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Dr. Harry Benjamin?


A: Harry Benjamin is now best known for his work in transgender medicine but the funny thing is that I became interested in him for quite another reason.


In the 1920s, he gained fame as the doctor who gave glandular rejuvenation treatments to the author, Gertrude Atherton. Atherton was so delighted with the results of her treatment that she wrote the best-selling novel Black Oxen. The main character is an intriguing woman whose secret turns out to be that she has been rejuvenated.


I’m an historian of science and medicine and have long been fascinated with the history of hormone research.


Initially, I had envisioned interweaving the stories of several physicians and hormone scientists during the “Roaring Twenties,” but I kept turning up at our dinner table to report some exciting new detail I’d dug up about Harry Benjamin in my research. His story was clearly the most significant and interesting strand that emerged.


My agents, Tisse Takagi and Peter Tallack, were invaluable in helping me find, shape, and stay true to my vision over the many years it took to get from proposal to publication.


Q: How did you research his life, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: The best part of doing history for me is diving into the archives. I had the chance to work with wonderful collections of papers in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and most importantly to spend weeks at the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Indiana, which houses Benjamin’s own papers.


In addition to 1,400 archival folders of documents, there are also boxes of objects and framed portraits. I found it quite moving to hold material items that had been used by Benjamin and to see the pictures of his colleagues and loved ones that had hung on his walls.


It was also a great privilege to interview some of Benjamin’s colleagues, who were able to share with me personal reflections of the kind that would probably never surface in the written record.


I think the most magical moment for me was when the archivist at the Kinsey Institute helped me open a diary with a tiny brass lock on it. Benjamin first wrote in it when he was 19.


I already knew quite a bit about Benjamin as an older professional, but it was a delight to gain a window into his swirl of emotions as a young man, his aspirations and frustrations, his pining after an unattainable woman, and his puzzling out who he was and where his life might lead him.


Q: The writer Susan Stryker said of the book, “Alison Li has produced a highly readable, authoritatively researched biography of Harry Benjamin, whose contributions to transgender medicine are not as widely known as they should be.” What do you think of that description, and, if you agree, why do you think Benjamin's contributions are not as well-known as they might be?


A: I’m really grateful to have these comments from a scholar of such eminence. I completely agree with her that Benjamin’s contributions are not as well-known as they should be.


He is a pivotal figure in the history of trans medicine, but his name is not very familiar to people outside of the trans community, and many who recognize his name may not know a great deal about his life and work.


Researchers in trans studies and history of medicine have contributed important scholarly work on particular aspects of Benjamin’s thought and career but no one had written a full-scale biography.


I suspect there are a few reasons for this. First, although Benjamin’s name is associated with transgender medicine, he actually spent most of his career doing something else: he was working with aging patients using what he termed “gerontotherapy.”


Second, people may have mixed feelings about Benjamin. Susan Stryker explains that the trans community remembers him as a compassionate though somewhat paternalistic advocate. His name is associated with the treatment protocols--the Benjamin Standards of Care--that many now regard as offensive.


And then, of course there is the simple fact that he lived so long and worked until he was 90, so his career spanned huge changes in sexology, science, and medicine.


I found Benjamin’s story fascinating and thought it deserved to be read by a wide audience.


I was curious about how the disparate parts of his long and shifting career fit together and believed that, by framing it against broader developments in hormone science, I could provide meaningful context. I thought this was something worthwhile I had to offer as a biographer.


It has been really gratifying to hear from scholars since, that they had been hoping for a long time that someone would write this book.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I find many people are surprised to learn how long ago gender-affirming ideas and practices began in medicine. Trans people today are experiencing tremendous challenges to their access to appropriate medical care. I hope this book will contribute to putting current debates in historical perspective.


What impressed me most about Harry Benjamin was that he treated his patients with real kindness and respect. Many became his friends, and some became valued collaborators.


At the time, most medical professionals were very unsympathetic to trans people. For many of his trans patients in the 1950s and ‘60s, meeting him was one of the first times they felt truly understood.


Over the years, Benjamin was able to learn and grow in his understanding of trans people, and, whatever the shortcomings of his theories and methods, his humane approach did an immense amount of good.


Benjamin’s ability to look his patients in the eye—whether young, old, cis, or trans--and to appreciate their full humanity, is a characteristic that continues to inspire me. I hope readers will be similarly inspired.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My next project is not yet pinned down but I can say that it will be about hormones.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Through the many years that I have been working on this project, I’ve been very grateful for my writing group.


Over a morning coffee or an afternoon glass of wine, my fellow writers and I have shared ideas and critiqued each other’s novels, plays, and nonfiction. More importantly perhaps, we’ve just been there every month to say, “Keep going!”


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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