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Sex Change Spitfire Ace to land in Channel 4's Secret History strand

Category: News Release

Sex Change Spitfire Ace: Secret History (w/t) is the extraordinary story of the unique relationship between two of the most remarkable pioneers of the twentieth century: Michael Dillon, the world’s first woman to become a man and Roberta Cowell, Britain’s first man to become a woman.

It caused a press sensation in 1950s Britain when the story broke, but was ultimately to end in tragedy.  

Now, sixty years later the amazing untold medical history of the first sex changes can be told.   It has an astonishing twist: Michael Dillon, a medical student, illegally carried out the castration of Robert Cowell to enable him to become Roberta.

The film has exclusive interviews with the journalist and author Liz Hodgkinson, whose friendship with Cowell led to the discovery of the letters revealing the deep but unrequited love of Michael Dillon for Roberta Cowell. It was this friendship between the two sex change pioneers that led to Dillon agreeing to carry out the castration. Liz Hodgkinson shows the extraordinary handwritten contract in which Cowell consents to be castrated by Dillon, which will be revealed on television for the first time.

As a man, Roberta Cowell had been a married father of two, a celebrated racing driver competing at the Belgian Grand Prix and a Spitfire pilot during the war. He had seemingly thrived in his conventional domestic life and in the super macho aggressive world of motor-racing and flying, winning races and logging over 1600 hours as a pilot in his spare time following the war. As a woman, Michael Dillon, the niece of Sir John Dillon, 7th Baronet of Lismullen, was educated at an exclusive girls’ school and had been President of the Oxford Women’s University Boat Club.

But both Roberta Cowell and Michael Dillon were profoundly unhappy and desperate to do whatever was necessary to release them from bodies which did not feel like their own. 

This is also the story of Sir Harold Gillies, one of the world’s most daring plastic surgeons, who carried out the pioneering sex change operations on the two individuals.

The maverick Sir Harold, who had made his name rebuilding the shattered faces of soldiers injured by shrapnel and bullets in the trenches of the First World War, had become Harley Street’s highest paid surgeon. He embraced the challenge of embarking on a world surgical first: helping Michael Dillon transition from woman to man.

It was the beginning of a process of more than 17 operations which would take place over the next 10 years and would culminate in the surgical creation of a penis made from skin taken from Dillon’s body.

Meanwhile, divorced and estranged from his two daughters, Roberta Cowell’s life was falling apart. Drawn to Michael Dillon because of his sex change, he first persuaded the medical student Dillon to perform the castration on him. He then approached Sir Harold Gillies who agreed to carry out a vaginoplasty on him, in another world first.  

The exposure of the couples’ sensational story captivated the nation but had traumatic consequences for both Roberta Cowell and Michael Dillon.

The film is made for Channel 4 by Blakeway Productions.