Archive for Sexology


The Transatlantic Commuter

An interview with Harry Benjamin (b. January 12, 1885)
on the occasion of his 100th birthday.

Interviewer: Erwin J. Haeberle.

Published in "Sexualmedizin", vol. 14, 1/1985

Haeberle: Dear Harry, over the years, we have often talked about the beginnings of sexology, and you gave me a great deal of historical material while relating to me interesting personal impressions. Lately, even in the Federal Republic of Germany the interest in the history of this science has been increasing greatly, and thus the readers of Sexualmedizin appreciate the opportunity to hear from someone who was, so to speak, there from the very start. How did you get into sexual medicine anyway?

Benjamin: I was not there at the very start. However, I do remember going, as a young person, to a lecture by Auguste Forel, whose book "The Sexual Question" was a sensation at the time and which impressed me greatly. I also met Magnus Hirschfeld very early on through a girl friend, who know the police official Dr. Kopp, who was in charge investigating of sexual offenses. He, in turn, was a friend of Hirschfeld's, and so I met both men. That was around 1907. They repeatedly took me along on their rounds through the homosexual bars in Berlin. I especially remember the "Eldorado" with its drag shows, where also many of the customers appeared in the clothing of the other sex. The word "transvestite" had not yet been invented. Hirschfeld coined it only in 1910 in his well-known study.

My medical studies, however, did not touch upon sexual problems. I received my doctorate 1912 in Tübingen for a dissertation on tuberculosis, having studied with Ernst von Romberg.

Haeberle: Before we leave Berlin, perhaps a few memories of the imperial residence.You once told me that, as a child, you saw Bismarck in the streets.

Benjamin: Yes, but as a life-long opera fan, I have other beautiful memories. For example, I once danced with the very young Geraldine Farrar - she began her career in Berlin - and in 1904 I heard Caruso for the first time. I was still in the last years of high school, but already greatly interested in medicine. Thus, it happened that, with the help of the theatre physician, I could actually take a look into Caruso's throat. However, I was so excited that I did not see anything. On the other hand, I do remember that I saw Max Reinhardt's legendary production of Gorki's "Night Asylum", and, in 1905, I also saw the world premiere of Wedekind's "Spring's Awakening".

Haeberle: But you soon went to America in connection with your work on tuberculosis.

Benjamin: Yes, and I owe this, above all, to the great Karl Ludwig Schleich, the inventor of local anesthesia. who, at that time, was already an elderly gentleman at the end of his career. I don't remember how he came to notice me, but it was he who advised me to follow a certain Dr. F. F. Friedmann to New York. This Friedmann had, with a self-developed serum, obtained astonishing successes in the treatment of tuberculosis in bones and joints. He now wanted to extend them to the tuberculosis of the lungs. A rich American invited him to New York, where he was to continue his research and treat this man's son-in-law. For his complete cure, one million dollars were to be paid. Friedmann, accompanied by myself as his assistant and also by a press agent, then boarded the "Crown Princess Cecilie". Unfortunately, our cooperation did not last long, since Friedmann proved to be an unethical physician. His sponsor soon became suspicious, and we never even got to see the patient. When Friedmann then asked me to "beautify" his research data, the break was unavoidable. I first attempted to make a living in private practice, but in August 1914 tried to return to Berlin. Our ship was in the middle of the ocean when World War I broke out. We were redirected to England. Unable to return to Germany, I booked, with my last dollars, a passage back to New York. For me, this was a great piece of good luck. I was spared the war, and for that, in the end, I can be grateful to that unscrupulous Friedmann.

Haeberle: How did you get a foothold in America?

Benjamin: At first, it was not easy. After various attempts, in 1915 I simply opened a consultation room, in which I also slept. My income was not substantial: $ 2 for a consultation, $ 3 for a house call. The rent was $ 6 per week.

Haeberle: How did you establish contact with Steinach and the other sexologists?

Benjamin: I was very interested in geriatrics and thus heard about the experiments of Eugen Steinach, who, by means of his so-called Steinach operation (i.e. vasoligation) had achieved rejuvenation effects in animals. Finally, in 1921, I had the opportunity to accompany a female patient on a trip to Europe with all my expenses paid. In Vienna, I then met Steinach in person. I was greatly impressed with his sex change operations in rats and guinea pigs by means of castration and transplantation of endocrine glands. From then on, I visited him as his disciple almost regularly every summer well into the thirties. Thus, I became, as it were, a transatlantic commuter, who tried to mediate between America and Europe. For example, in the twenties I brought the well-known "Steinach Film", a silent, full-length documentary, to New York and showed it to the Academy of Medicine. This scientific film had been made by the Ufa with Austrian help and existed in two versions: one for specialists, and one for the general public. In Germany, the film was very successful, but in America no distributor could be found. I assume that both versions are now lost.

Haeberle: In Vienna, you also visited Sigmund Freud.

Benjamin: Yes, Steinach arranged a meeting for me, and Freud received me in his apartment. He was very serious, but did laugh briefly when I jokingly declared that a disharmony of souls might perhaps be explained by a dishormony of endocrine glands. Freud was very much biologically oriented, and, in this sense, he was not a Freudian. He would certainly be shocked to learn what became of his doctrine in America. Freud also confessed to me that he himself had undergone a "Steinach operation". He actually believed that it had done him good, that his vitality had been strengthened, and that even his jaw (Freud suffered from cancer of the jaw) had been influenced favorably. Today we know, of course, that these impressions were based, in part, on autosuggestion. Freud asked me not to tell anyone about his operation until after his death, and I have kept that promise. He also asked me if I had been analyzed. I mentioned my relative short analysis by Arthur Kronfeld in Berlin. Freud warned me that Kronfeld had "a very bad character".

Haeberle: How did you get to know Kronfeld?

Benjamin: I met him in 1921 at Hirschfeld's first congress in Berlin. This was the International Conference for Sexual Reform on a Sexological Basis at the Langenbeck-Virchow-Haus. I knew Hirschfeld from before the war, and, in the meantime, he had opened his Institute in Berlin, which I visited again and again in later years. I now came to Berlin on a regular basis, and thus, for example, I also spoke at the great International Congress for Sex Research organized by Albert Moll in 1926.

Haeberle: How was Moll as a person? One often hears that he was not easy to get along with.

Benjamin: He was very "Prussian", not very communicative and arrogant. He embodied the type "German professor". Not very appealing. However, I spoke at both his congresses, also at the one in London.

Haeberle: Even so, this did not harm your friendship with Hirschfeld.

Benjamin: No, although Hirschfeld also had his less attractive side. He was very miserly and often negligent in his appearance. Nevertheless, he was an important pioneer with an enormous capacity for work. When, in 1930, his life became ever more difficult because of the Nazis, I invited him to New York for some lectures, and I also helped him later as much as I could. Our common friend George Sylvester Viereck took good care of him and supported him with interviews in many American newspapers. Starting in America, Hirschfeld then started his well-known trip around the world. I saw him for the last time in Chicago, where Max Thorek, the founder of the International College of Surgeons, gave an impressive dinner in his honor.

Haeberle: Hirschfeld also sent you a homosexual German-American by the name of Elmhurst, who, already in those days, wanted to found a homosexual organization in New York.

Benjamin: I talked to Elmhurst and had to persuade him in all fairness to abandon his grandiose plans. At that time, America was simply not ready for these things. I suggested he should start with a small group of friends. I do not know what became of it; I just lost sight of him.

Haeberle: You continued to correspond with Hirschfeld practically until the time of his death.

Benjamin: Indeed, I have handed the correspondence over to you in case some institute should be reopened in Berlin. In that case, his letters naturally belong there. However, if, in the foreseeable future nothing happens in Berlin, they should go to the library in Los Angeles to whom I had originally promised them.

Haeberle: Hirschfeld once almost planned to move his institute to California. It's just that these plans never materialized just as the congress of the World League for Sexual Reform that you tried to organize in Chicago in 1933.

Benjamin: Regrettably. I even corresponded about it with Havelock Ellis, who, along with Hirschfeld and Auguste Forel, was one the League's presidents. Ellis, too, I met personally. That was some years later, 1937, in England. He was old and no longer in the best of health, but still a very impressive personality. He reminded me a little of Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet, whom I had met as a patient of Steinach's. Ellis talked with me for a long time, himself made us some tea and generally was a warmhearted host. In his English way, he was very charming.

Haeberle: You also knew Norman Haire, the younger Australian-English sex reformer, who was also active in the World League.

Benjamin: Very well. For his 60th birthday in 1952 he even was in New York, where we arranged a little celebration for him. Unfortunately, he had heart trouble and suddenly, while still in New York, had to be hospitalized. There, together with Alfred Kinsey, I visited him. However, we were allowed to stay only for half an hour in order not to put Norman Haire under too much stress. A few months later, he died in England.

Haeberle: How, when and where did you meet Kinsey?

Benjamin: I met Kinsey in New York through the well-known American gynecologist R. L. Dickinson sometime around 1945. Three years later in San Francisco, he lived in the same hotel as I did - the "Sir Francis Drake". I had, in the meantime, opened a second (i.e. summer) practice right across from this hotel (in the "Sutter Medical Building" at 450 Sutter Street). Thus, I commuted between the two American coasts. Kinsey came to California quite often because of his interviews, and he asked my advice in the case of a boy he had met on one of these occasions. This very effeminate boy wanted, as he said, become a girl, and his mother supported him in this. Kinsey had never seen a case like this, and it was new even for me. It went well beyond the by then recognized transvestism. The concept of transsexualism did not yet exist, it only gradually took shape in my thinking, not least because of this first case. I introduced the term only in 1954, and my book on the subject did not appear until 1966 ("The Transsexual Phenomenon"). Anyway, I asked for the boy's psychiatric examination under the aspect of possible surgery that would make his body more female in appearance.

The psychiatrists disagreed among themselves. Some were for it, others against it.

However, the boy received "female" hormones that "had a calming effect". He then travelled to Germany, where he underwent partial surgery. After that, I unfortunately lost contact with him, and thus I do not know what ultimately became of the case.

Haeberle: In the meantime, thanks to your pioneering work, transsexualism has been recognized as a medical diagnosis, and also the respective surgical operations are no longer rare. At the same time, there have been technical surgical advances. How do you see the problem today?

Benjamin: One must understand the main problem of transsexuals. In English, it is properly named "gender dysphoria", i.e. a discrepancy between anatomy and sexual self-identification. It does not follow that one should perform surgery in every case, because there are cases in which such surgery is later regretted, sometimes many years later. Many transsexuals may also manage without surgery as long as they are being treated with hormones and can wear the clothing of the desired (more precisely: truly felt) sex. At the same time, some psychotherapy should be provided. As I said, this can occasionally be a tolerable solution. I myself am for the operation, but it should be applied critically and cautiously.

Haeberle: When you now look back on your long and eventful career as a physician and sexological pioneer, what are your most important impressions and experioences?

Benjamin: First, of course, the sheer human impressions come to mind. It has been a privilege shared by few others to have known such men as Schleich, Forel, Steinach, Freud, Alfred Adler, Albert Moll, Hirschfeld and his coworkers Kronfeld, Levy-Lenz and Peter Schmidt, the art collector Eduard Fuchs, Havelock Ellis, Norman Haire and Alfred Kinsey. I also knew Margaret Sanger quite well and also Ben Lindsey and many other Americans who have worked for the alleviation of sexual misery. This experience shows me that the individual can indeed make a difference, and that a few people, through courage and hard work, have lessened the suffering of many. In the days of my youth, for example, syphilis was still incurable and contraception unreliable. In this respect, the situation has changed radically. One also has become much more reasonable with respect to criminal laws against prostitution and homosexual behavior. Indeed, the whole view of sexuality has become more sophisticated, and not only its procreative, but also its recreative function is widely being recognized. In my student days one still made few distinctions. Hirschfeld was the first to make transvestites visible as a special group, and I myself was able to help distinguish the transsexuals from them. As a consequence, all of these people have been greatly helped as far as their social acceptance is concerned. In this case, sexology has had very beneficial effects. On the other hand, I have also seen how this whole hopeful science fell victim to Nazi barbarism. Still, it came back to life here in America, but also in Europe. It is simply indispensable.

Haeberle: What would you wish for our German readers of "Sexualmedizin" in the future?

Benjamin: As a born Berliner I would, of course, be very happy if I could still see the return of sexology to Berlin. When I remember that this city once was the world center of this science, then it is very sad to see how this proud heritage is now practically forgotten. Thus, the 8th World Congress of Sexology 1987 cannot be held in Berlin, but goes to Heidelberg. Formerly, sexologists from all over the world regularly met in Berlin, not only for congresses, but also at Hirschfeld's institute. I, with my yearly visits in the twenties, am myself the best example. As a "wanderer between two worlds", I have cultivated the sexological connection between Berlin and America. Today, when Berlin owes so much to America, there are - and this is the irony - no longer any dialogue partners left in Berlin. The transatlantic bridge that I have crossed so many times in both directions, has, for our field, collapsed and has not yet again be repaired.

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