Lili Elbe was a Danish transgender woman who went first uterus transplant surgery in history. Born in 1882 as Lili Ilse Elvenes, she underwent the groundbreaking procedure in 1930 in an attempt to fully embrace her true identity.
She was a painter. She was the first person to be known to have had a uterine transplant in an attempt to become pregnant, but the complications that followed ultimately took her life.
Her semi-autobiographical story, Man into Woman: An Authentic Record of a Change of Sex, was released posthumously in the US and the UK in 1933. The Danish Girl, a movie based on her life, debuted in 2015. Tobias Picker wrote the opera Lili Elbe, which was based on her life and had its premiere in 2023.
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Lili Elbe Early life
Elbe was born to Ane Marie Thomsen and spice merchant Mogens Wilhelm Wegener. A book about her that includes some facts altered to protect the identities of those involved often lists her birth year as 1886.
It has been questioned that she was intersex. According to some stories, she may have had Klinefelter syndrome and already had immature ovaries in her abdomen.
Who Was Lili Elbe Married With?
Lili Elbe was married with Gerda Gottlieb. In 1904, when Gottlieb was nineteen and Elbe was twenty-two, they tied the knot at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, where they were both students. Her father was a Lutheran vicar, therefore Gerda hailed from a traditional home.
Lili Elbe Was Into Modelling
Lili Elbe worked as illustrators specialising in landscape paintings. In 1912, she settled in Paris where Elbe could live more openly as a woman by posing as Gottlieb’s sister-in-law. After enjoying dressing in women’s clothes for a modeling gig, Elbe continued to present as a woman and adopted the name Lili. She attended events and entertained guests in her house as Lili.
Meanwhile, her husband Gerda Gottlieb known for her paintings of beautiful women, used Elbe as the model for her depictions of petites femmes fatales. After her transition, Elbe stopped painting altogether.
Lili Elbe’s Uterus Transplant
Elbe went to Germany for sex reassignment surgery, in 1930 which was highly experimental at the time. She placed her trust in Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a prominent sexologist for transgender rights. Despite the risks involved, Elbe felt a deep sense of urgency to align her physical body with her true gender identity.
A series of four operations were then carried out over a period of two years. The surgical removal of the testicles was the initial procedure performed in Berlin by Dr. Erwin Gohrbandt. After removing the penis and scrotum in the third operation, an ovary was implanted into her abdominal musculature in the second.
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Her story had already made headlines in German and Danish media at the time. Elbe started seeing Claude Lejeune, a French art dealer, after her return to Dresden. She intended to marry and start a family with him. Gerda also wed an Italian man after her divorce from Elbe; however, the marriage was short-lived
Elbe returned for her fourth surgery, to transplant a uterus and construct a vaginal canal, in 1931. Only a short time after Erwin Gohrbandt conducted the experimental vaginoplasty on Dora Richter, she became one of the first transgender women to have the procedure done.
How Did Lili Elbe Died?
Elbe had an immune system rejection of the transplanted uterus after her fourth operation. In the end, her surgery led to an infection and three months after the operation, on 13 September 1931, in Dresden, Germany, she died. Elbe was buried in Trinitatisfriedhof in Dresden.
After learning about German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, Elbe decided she had been born into the wrong body and had intended to commit suicide in May 1930.