Friday 13 November 2020

The first ship’s doctor to transition

Dr Michael Laurence Dillon (1915-62) was the first known female-to-male person to be a doctor in the Merchant Navy.

Now there are plans afoot to celebrate him with a blue plaque.

 Also St Anne’s College, Oxford, his old alma mater from 1934-38, is beginning a series of public lectures in his name.  Michael Dillon LGBT+ Lecture SeriesSo far there is no indication that any of these talks will refer to his time at sea, 1952-58.

To my knowledge there are just two women doctors who concealed their identity on ships. Army surgeon James Miranda Steuart Barry (1789-1865) sailed out to postings, but was not a ship’s surgeon.   And circa 1927 a US merchant marine doctor was found, on her death, to be female.  No one suspected.

Doctor Michael wrote an autobiography in 1962 which was only published in 2017. He’s got a Wikipedia entry and two other biographies too.

 Recent blog entries focus on his links with St Anne’s, where Michael studied Greats from 1935-38:

At the moment I’m trying to track down Michael’s situation in the shipping industry by speaking to seafarers.

 Born Laura  Dillon, this ex-Girl Guide and Oxford Blue had been sailing, unsuspected, for six years after pioneering surgical and hormone treatment in the 1940s.

 In his autobiography, Out of the Ordinary, he describes how well the ship’s agents and his fellow officers aboard Ellerman's City of Bath behaved when he was outed by the press while stopping over in Baltimore in May 1958.

 He went to see the captain ‘praying he might be in his paternal mood ...  he became kindly and sympathetic at once, and promised to do all he could do to help ... cabled the agents in New York asking for a police guard for the gangway.’

 When Dr Michael went to find out how his shipmates were reacting  to the news ‘The Second poured me out a gin, raised his glass, and knocked mine and then said .... [he and the Sparks]  had discussed it at length over beer the night before ... [They] had come to the conclusion that I had had a rough deal ... since they had liked me before and I had not changed overnight they saw no reason for letting it make any difference.’

 The chairman of Ellermans replied to Michael’s news offering ‘his sympathy’. 

The medical superintendent said he '“still hoped I would stay with the company and would back any arrangements I liked.”’

 ‘But it would have been an impossible situation ... I would have been the target for speculation and whispers, until they got to know me.’

And so ‘Doc Mike’ asked to be discharged from the City of Bath in India. Just after his 43rd birthday be began a new life and went on to become the first western Buddhist novice. He died in 1962.

 By contrast April Ashley had joined the Merchant Navy as a seaman in 1951, sailing on the Pacific Fortune: See.April Ashley's Odyssey   (Picture of April in 2000.)

She had been born in 1935 and sailed the year before Michael first sailed. She became famous for her male-to-female transition after 1960, long after she had left the sea. 

I have met seafarers who regarded her, and Christine Jorgensen in 1952, as inspirational. By contrast Michael was the focus of very little publicity at the time.