Michael Dillon: A Biographical Exhibition


Laurence Michael Dillon (1915-1962) is perhaps best summed up by Susan Stryker in the foreword to Out of the Ordinary as:

first and foremost […] a seeker after truth who travelled wherever his queries led him.

Dillon’s lifelong search for truth led him to experimental gender-affirming medical treatments, but also to pursue spiritual questions, learning about Buddhist thought and eventually becoming ordained as a novice in the Theravadin order of the Hinayana school.  A pioneer of trans healthcare, Dillon was also a doctor, philosopher, poet, and a minor member of the aristocracy.  

Bringing together original documents from St Anne’s College Archive and the private collection of Dillon’s biographer, Liz Hodgkinson, for the first time; this exhibition explores his fascinating and enquiring journey through life.

Dillon as a monk [Private Collection of Liz Hodgkinson]


Born Laura Maud in 1915, Dillon grew up in Folkestone with his aunts.  His mother died of sepsis just days after his birth and his father of alcoholism ten years later.  Despite this and the state of semi poverty enforced by the frugality of their aunts, Dillon and his brother Bobby had a fairly untroubled childhood and holidayed on the family land in Ireland each summer.  Yet as the years went by, he felt a growing unease at the different way he and his brother were treated:

I was out for a walk with the eighteen year old nephew of the Vicar […] and somewhere there was a gate which he opened and stood aside to let me pass through first. Suddenly I was struck with an awful thought, for no one had done this for me before. “He thinks I’m a woman.” It was a horrible moment and I felt stunned. I had never thought of myself as such despite being technically a girl.

p.73, Out of the Ordinary

Applying to Oxford was a way to escape, or at least delay, the inevitabilities of life as a woman.  The vicar supported the contemplative yet determined Dillon in applying to read Theology at The Society of Oxford Home-Students (as St Anne’s was then known) where he won a place and entered in 1934 for a pass degree.  The same wilfulness led him to persuade his tutors of a change to Classics within the year.

Dillon's results card showing the change of degree [St Anne's College Archive]
Dillon's Oxford application form [St Anne's College Archive]
Dillon as a scout [Private Collection of Liz Hodgkinson]
Dillon and his brother [Private Collection of Liz Hodgkinson]
Dillon in his teenage years [Private Collection of Liz Hodgkinson]
Dillon in the press [St Anne's College Archive]


Dillon discovered an enthusiasm for rowing at Oxford and joined the women’s boat club in his first term, quickly securing a position rowing stroke (the key position at the stern).  Rowing was an escape from social functions populated by ‘politely condescending young men’ and by his second year he had earned a blue and been elected club president.

As president Dillon set about reforming the O.U.W.B.C. into a serious competitive entity.  He found a coach and secured uniforms for the crew as well as successfully petitioning for conventional side by side races rather than the short time trials that women had previously been restricted to.

He led the club from success to success and in his final year (1938), the eight won against Cambridge, London, Kings, Bristol and Edinburgh; earning the attention of the local and national press.  Though mostly positive, some of the coverage was unpleasant and drew unwanted attention to Dillon, something that he would be battling against for the rest of his life.

["Picture Gallery." Daily Mail [London, England] 18 Nov. 1937: p.9. Daily Mail Historical Archive]
The eight in training with Dillon on the left [St Anne's College Archive]

What next?

Dillon reportedly loved Oxford from the start of his time here and had many fond memories, but distancing himself from his former life would be an essential part of becoming who he wanted to be.  At Oxford there were young women who had dressed similarly to him and had their hair cut short but, outside of the University bubble, Dillon was set for a life of discomfort and unwanted attention.

He graduated in 1938 and bought a motorcycle that summer, impressing the men at the garage with how quickly he took to it.  His student file carries a letter addressed to Grace Hadow (the Principal), likely written around the same time.  He had been on her recommendation to meet a Dr Zuckerman to discuss the study of anatomy.  The letter enthusiastically explains Zuckerman’s research including injecting male and female hormones into rats and monitoring their behaviour.

His name (as L. M. Dillon) appears in the 1939 issue of the old members publication ‘The Ship’ with news of his new appointment as ‘Laboratory Assistant, Stoke Park Colony, Stapleton, Bristol’ where his work would involve dissecting brains. 

Record of Old Students [St Anne's College Archive]
Letter about meeting Dr Zuckerman [St Anne's College Archive]


While working at the laboratory Dillon sought treatment from Dr. George Foss, who was interested in the medical uses for testosterone. Foss requested that Dillon consult a psychiatrist before treatment, however the psychiatrist’s indiscretion led to Dillon being ‘outed’ to his colleagues and forced to leave.

Following the outbreak of WWII, Dillon undertook various stints of war work before finding a position at College Motors, a garage. He endured mocking from his colleagues there but, once the effects of testosterone therapy began to show, was eventually treated as a man to avoid confusing customers. The turbulence of wartime Bristol coupled with the difficulties caused by the early stages of Dillon’s physical transition made this a painful time for him. On the typescript of his autobiography, Out of the Ordinary, he writes in pencil after a paragraph about his time at the garage: ‘it was the worst period of my life’ before crossing it out.

Dillon around the time he left Oxford [Private Collection of Liz Hodgkinson]
A memo to St Anne's asking not to be kept on the books [St Anne's College Archive]

Becoming Michael

Despite the difficulties he endured, being in Bristol did benefit Dillon in several ways. During a hospital stay following an attack of hypoglycaemia, Dillon happened to meet a sympathetic plastic surgeon who offered to perform a double mastectomy and suggested he change his birth certificate to male. Around 1944 Dillon legally became Laurence Michael, finally enabling him to ‘escape from what had been a prison of darkness‘. Following this, Dillon attended the Merchant Venturers’ Technical College part-time to enable him to earn the qualifications he would need to pursue a medical degree. He writes in Out of the Ordinary that ‘the relief was indescribable‘ when at college he was simply accepted as an ordinary young man.

Following the intervention of a supportive tutor at Oxford he was able to have his name entered on the books of Brasenose College, an all-male college, rather than at the women-only Society of Oxford Home-Students. This allowed him to apply to medical schools and he was accepted into Trinity College, Dublin to begin his studies. There, he spent university vacations undergoing surgery with Sir Harold Gillies, known as the father of modern plastic surgery, introduced to him by the surgeon who performed his double mastectomy.

Dillon’s interest in medicine and philosophy inspired him to work on his first book from 1939 and into the 1940s, titled Self.

Dillon around 1944 [Private Collection of Liz Hodgkinson]
Cover of Dillon's 1946 publication Self : a study in ethics and endocrinology
His one aim had always been to make life tolerable for those who either Nature or man had ill-treated without regard to conventional views and to many a one he must have given renewed hope and a new start.

–  Michael Dillon writing about the passing of Sir Harold Gillies, p.187, Out of the Ordinary 

Self & Roberta Cowell

Dillon’s 1946 book Self: a study in ethics and endocrinology presents a view on transgender medical care decades ahead of its time. It also separates being transgender from being homosexual, as the two were often mistakenly conflated at the time. Dillon writes:

‘Surely, where the mind cannot be made to fit the body, the body should be made to fit, approximately, at any rate to the mind, despite the prejudices of those who have not suffered these things, yet to suffer which they so readily condemn others.’

p.53, Self

This statement advocates for what we would now call gender-affirming healthcare for transgender individuals. Despite his deeply personal stake in the subject of the book, Dillon does not refer to his own self-experimentation with testosterone or his other medical procedures. However, upon reading Self, Roberta Cowell must have intuited that the author would be able to help her with questions she had about her own transition. She contacted Dillon, and the two began a frequent correspondence. Dillon even performed an orchidectomy on Roberta, before being qualified as a physician, as the operation was illegal at the time.

Roberta Cowell [Independent.co.uk]
A draft of Cowell's pre-operation consent notice written by Dillon [Private Collection of Liz Hodgkinson]

For Dillon, the relationship quickly became romantic. It is clear from his letters to Roberta that he felt he had finally met someone he could safely express himself to, though Roberta did not return his feelings. Their relationship soured in 1951 after Roberta rejected Dillon’s proposal of marriage. Working at Dublin Royal Hospital at the time, Dillon made the decision to join the merchant navy as a ship’s doctor and would spend six years at sea.

A search for Truth

During his time at sea Dillon encountered Tuesday Lobsang Rampa’s The Third Eye and met with the author in Ireland between voyages. Inspired, he spent time in India practicing meditation after a sea voyage and began to explore Buddhist thought.  In 1957 Dillon published Poems of Truth which was heavily influenced by the esoteric spiritual thought he had encountered.

Dillon with Lobsang Rampa [Private Collection of Liz Hodgkinson]

In May 1958 Dillon was, as he had long feared, exposed by the press.  Reporters from various newspapers contacted his ship, The City of Bath, by cable following a discrepancy noticed between Debrett’s Peerage and Burke’s Peerage.  Where Debrett’s listed Dillon as the male heir to the Baronetcy of Lismullen, Burke’s listed him as a sister.  Dismayed by the unwanted attention, he made plans to disembark when the ship reached India and retreat to a monastery.


Dillon's 'outing' in the Sunday Express [Private Collection of Liz Hodgkinson]

Initially Dillon went to Kalimpong and ordained there as a sramanera or novice monk, taking the name Jivaka after the Buddha’s own physician.  Frustrated in his path to higher ordination by Sangharakshita, a fellow white English monk who disapproved of Dillon’s aspirations, he went to Rizong Monastery to be reordained a getsul or novice monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.  A desire to tell his story on his own terms following further ‘outings’ in Hindi newspapers led Dillon to write Out of the Ordinary.

Fifteen days after completing the manuscript he died suddenly on his way to Kashmir, aged only 47 years old. It would take a further 55 years to be published in its entirety.

The typescript of Dillon's autobiography [Private Collection of Liz Hodgkinson]

This exhibition was curated by Lauren Ward and Duncan Jones for the launch of the Michael Dillon LGBT+ Lecture Series