Popular and Medical Understandings of Sex Change in 1930s Britain

  • Clare Tebbutt

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis considers how understandings of the sexed body changed in Britain during the 1930s. Popular versions of sex changeability were grounded in medical science and I examine how medico-scientific research into hormones changed understandings of where sex was located in the body. I examine the historically specific concept of normality, which medics employed to ascertain whether or not individuals ought to have their sex reclassified. I focus on L. R. Broster, a surgeon at London's Charing Cross Hospital. I analyse Broster's case studies, published in 1938 as The Adrenal Cortex and Intersexuality, which showed the markers medical professionals were using to assign sex. The thesis investigates how Broster's work in the burgeoning field of endocrinology generated distinctive narratives of sexual mutability and locatedness in the body. Broster was an important figure in the press stories about changes of sex and provides a link between them and the medical research occurring at Charing Cross.During the 1930s the popular daily, local and Sunday newspapers contained numerous articles about individuals whose sex had changed. These accounts were treated in a mostly positive tone and were held up as being symptomatic of scientific modernity. I argue that this concept of 'sex change' does not neatly map on to present day categories, be they intersexuality, transsexuality, transgender or any other. Older categories such as that of the 'man-woman' persisted into the 1930s as a way to conceive of sexual ambiguity and changeability. That sex could change, and in particular that women could become men, was an idea that had a wide reach across popular culture.New concepts of hormones and of sex change were also taken up in special- interest magazines, adverts, fiction and popular science. I explore the dissemination of ideas about sex changeability and the role of hormones beyond the press and medical studies to show their pervasiveness. I pay particular attention to two very different magazines, Urania and London Life. These magazines extended the life of articles about changes of sex by reprinting and recontextualising them. They point to the interest that such stories attracted and the ways in which they were harnessed to competing ideological ends.Women's increased participation in sport also changed understandings of the sexed body, having an impact on gender roles and the sexed and gendered meanings ascribed to physical features such as muscles. Women's athleticism suggested that competitiveness could also be a female trait, and that muscularity was not exclusively male. I consider how the achievements of sportswomen, and the more typically masculine bodies they developed, challenged the received differences between men and women.Attention to the sexed body as a site of cultural concern expands the remit of queer historiography beyond sexual identities and practices. I argue that scientific developments and popular culture coalesced to create an environment in which sex characteristics were not fixed and the sexed body was seen as mutable.
Date of Award1 Aug 2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorFrank Mort (Supervisor) & Laura Doan (Supervisor)


  • cultural history
  • sport
  • hormones
  • 1930s
  • popular press
  • medical humanities
  • intersex
  • interwar
  • sex
  • gender
  • social history
  • trans*
  • L. R. Broster

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