Thursday 8 February 2024

Transitioning, the sea and surgery: Dr Michael Dillon

Ship's doctor Michael Dillon is a key person in LGBT+  maritime history. We especially recognise his significance at this point because LGBT+ History Month 2024 focuses on medicine. 

On Feb 28, Pride in Maritime Day, we can celebrate that it is 72 years since seafaring gained its first trans surgeon.

In Spring 1952 Michael (1915-62) put on his gold and scarlet braid. 'Never had I dreamed I would one day adorn myself in such glad rags!' 

At King George V Dock joined an (un-named) P&O coaster. That night 'I went to my bunk feeling intensely happy, This was the life for me. I would see the world and become a real sailor!'  

A Folkestone person, educated in Oxford, with aristocratic Irish roots, Michael Dillon was 37 and a mature student newly out of medical school. He saw himself as 'victim of a sex mix-up', which he had had rectified. No regrets. 

To use the language of LGBT+ history month 2024 he'd put himself # under the scope. He made medical knowledge work for him, despite its infancy.

 From 1940 he'd been taking testosterone. Between 1945 and 49 a total of 13 operations effected the transition.  He'd been living successfully as a man for three years, and owned to no fears of being misgendered on board. 

His fields - seafaring and medicine - were the two factors that helped Michael most with living daily with this change of identity. 

His professional context

All ships carrying over 12 passengers were legally required to carry a doctor. Michael was one of many on British merchant navy passenger or passenger-cargo vessels. Commercial flying was just beginning; migration to Australia was a popular way to evade post-war difficulty.

For six years from 1952-58 Michael, who was accepted as a male by shipmates and passengers, looked after the health of people travelling the world, be they troops, holidaymakers, Ten-Pound Poms, or Mecca pilgrims, whatever their sex and gender. 

At that time hardly any women were seafaring doctors. The are women, usually newly qualified, were mainly on educational cruises working with children. Treating male crew for STDs was a cause of blushes. Gender divisions and sexuality were serious matters.  

Some male seafarers seeking to transition took advantage of different regulations in other countries to transition there, or at least acquire hormone medication there. Usually they did not share that information with their ship's doctor, so there was little help sought if the process went awry.

Four aspects of maritime life that helped Michael deal with his loneliness and conflict included:

1.That at sea he could construct an emotional disconnected way of living that suited him 

2. That in ports he found friendliness at Missions to Seamen centres. worldwide. This included Durban, Antwerp, Kobe, Singapore, and Victoria Dock Road, London. There in Whitechapel  'The Lady Warden, the padre and his wife, the girls in the office were all friends, and sometimes I would serve in the canteen if they were short-staffed.' He also enjoyed the jolly country dancing  - more than evenings in ships' stately ballrooms.

3. He was very publicly outed by the Sunday Mirror and then by newspapers worldwide in 1958. Who had made the anonymous tip-off? Probably his ex-beloved, Roberta Cowell, whom he'd helped to transition. 

But on ship collegial support when outed came from:

  • Michael's captain on the City of Bath when in Baltimore. He was 'kindly and symathetic .... keeping reporters off the ship and cabling the New York agents asking for a police guard for the gangway.' 
  • The Second Officer. He 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 Third Mate. He was ysmpatheric because he'd suffered the stigma of a hare lip until operated on. Matily he joked that they would chuck an insistent press photographer overboard.

4. His employers, Ellerman's, supported him and didn't want him to tender his resignation, as he thought honorable. The chairman of Ellermans offered ‘his sympathy’. The company's medical superintendent, Michael's line manager, said he '“still hoped I would stay with the company and would back any arrangements I liked.”’

Mixed responses to transition revelations

The maritime industry support that Michael got was not total. 

  • The Mate sneered: he'd always known there was something fishy. The Sunday Express didn't publish Michael's 'defensive' letter criticising the paper for ruining a man's career just to titillate its readers for five minutes.  
  • The captain turned hostile, presumably with the stress. Michael believed that the captain had two personalities, the kind one and the one 'which was always looking for some grounds for resentment.'   Michael's decision to leave the ship at Calcutta (which meant the ship was minus one of the two surgeons) meant the captain was 'almost permanently' in his aggrieved state, wrongly imagining that he (not the purser ) would be forced to deputise. 
  • This rejection by a patriachal semi-ally made Michael's last weeks in the merchant service even more miserable.
  • 'Deserted', Michael mourned the limited fraternal support, quoting this Rudyard Kipling verse to the press:

Nine hundred and ninety-nine can’t abide

The shame and mocking and laughter

But the thousandth man will stand by your side

To the gallows’ foot and after.

How did being in the medical profession help Michael?

1. It gave him (although he paid privately) the operations he wanted, and some support. Harold Gillies was his friendly surgeon

2. By training, at Trinity College, Dublin (pictured)  (1945-51) he gained a kind of acceptance, a sense of active agency as a change-maker for others.  For example, he risked prosecution by giving Roberta Cowell a then-illegal inguinal orchiechtomy (castration).

3. Becoming  a surgeon at sea  (rather than a GP on land) gave him a lifestyle that worked for him, as a loner and rover. He had valued status, some privacy, and companionship in temporary non-normative floating communities.  

What happened?

  • Michael felt forced to leave the sea after being outed. Indeed he exited Western life for a contemplative one as a Buddhist., transitioning spiritually He died four years later. 
  • At least one ship's surgeon, who'd been in the Royal Navy, transitioned to female a little later. 
  • Roberta Cowell carried on motor racing and creating a cultural climate where British men were inspired to transition. 
  • Today there is no transitioned ship's doctor who is visible on the internet. This does not mean they don't exist. 

Learning more

  • For a quick read, see my illustrated blog item, The first ship’s doctor to transition. Go to  
  • You can also ask to book my Powerpoint talk about him.
  • To understand Michael's own story more fully see  his autobigraphy: Michael Dillon/ Lobzang Jivaka, 'Out of the Ordinary', eds Jacob Lau and Cameron Partridge,  Fordham University Press, New York, 2017. 
  • See also Roberta Cowell's stories, including on Wikipedia.