The MacLennan Lecture – Dr. Alison Li explores the life of a pioneer of transgender health care

The MacLennan Lecture - Dr. Alison Li explores the life of a pioneer of transgender health care

The afternoon leading up to the 2024 MacLennan Lecture, Dr. Alison Li stood before a group of HOST students and asked them to name the first word that came to mind when they thought of “hormones.” This game of word association had a purpose. As a historian of science and medicine with a particular focus on the history of endocrinology, Dr. Li has a deep interest in how people have understood hormones throughout history. As students shouted out words, she filled up the chalkboard in the packed classroom. Birth control, menopause, adrenaline, puberty blockers and the endocrine system all graced the board—revealing how these students associate hormones with a set of processes, procedures and products.

This group of students in Dr. Mélanie Frappier’s Human Experiments class received a preview of the evening lecture. Dr. Li gave them only part of the story, just enough to keep them hooked and interested in coming back for the rest. Later that day, her lecture in Alumni Hall to a larger audience of the King’s community took a more thorough tour of transgender health-care history.

Each year, the MacLennan Lecture funds a visiting scholar to present a public lecture in the field of science and technology, or in the history and philosophy of science. Dr. Li’s lecture, the sixth in the MacLennan series, focused on the research behind her book Wondrous Transformations, an investigation into the life and innovation of Harry Benjamin, an endocrinologist and physician whom Li describes as pivotal to the development of transgender medicine.

A German endocrinologist originally working in gerontology, Benjamin performed hormone therapies as a method of revitalizing aging bodies. These procedures left him receptive to the diverse possibilities of hormone treatments. Benjamin’s collaboration with sexologists like Magnus Hirschfeld also made him aware of a growing field of transgender health care and taught him that sex categories were not essential, but rather something more malleable. When he met transwoman Val Berry in 1949, Benjamin was able to provide hormone therapy for her. Already in his 60s, Benjamin began a new career, performing medical transitions for many transgender individuals. At the age of 81, he published a groundbreaking book on the topic which outlined the concept of gender dysphoria—just one of many ways that Benjamin became codified in standards of care. The history of transgender health care and the development of hormone therapy are inextricably tied to the story of Harry Benjamin. As Dr. Li put it in her lecture—when it comes to her research, “all roads lead back to Benjamin.”

A variety of questions were asked in the question period following the lecture. Some in attendance were interested in exploring Dr. Li’s methodology, asking about the structure of Wondrous Transformations, which is built on a strong contextual foundation of archival documents, including letters, diaries and newspapers. Others asked more sweeping questions about transgender health care and about issues facing transgender individuals in the present day. It was clear that Dr. Li had made an impression, and that many in attendance trusted her knowledge and opinions beyond history and into current events. While careful not to exceed the boundaries of her own research and expertise, Dr. Li graciously answered questions that dealt with a variety of topics.

In the book signing after the lecture, attendees were eager to speak with Dr. Li one-on-one. Many had words of gratitude for her about the impact and significance of her research. Combining history and advocacy, a book like Wondrous Transformations has the potential to bring awareness to overlooked areas of medical history. The 2024 MacLennan lecture gave Dr. Li a platform to educate her listeners not only on the life of Harry Benjamin, but on the lives of his patients. For many people in attendance, the lecture was a powerful reminder that queer history is far reaching and that trans individuals have been here all along.

Through a generous gift from Oriel MacLennan, a life-long enthusiast of the history of science, the History of Science and Technology Program established the MacLennan Lecture in 2017. Visit the MacLennan Lecture’s main page to see previous lecturers.

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