16 February 2021
By Greg Denieffe
Greg Denieffe takes a walk on the wild side.
According to author Michael Crichton in his 1995 book The Lost World: ‘Absence of proof is not proof of absence.’ That may well be true, but for this tale, I will take heart in the fact the absence of proof is balanced by the basis of probability.
For years, the myth that a rower had been awarded a ‘Blue’ in both women’s and men’s university rowing has spread around the internet and in magazine articles. I decided to examine the evidence to see if it could be true.
The women’s boat race in question is the race between the English universities of Oxford and Cambridge and the men’s equivalent is the race for The Gannon Cup between Dublin University Boat Club and University College Dublin Boat Club.
As you would expect with an introduction like that, there is more to this story than mere rowing. In the 1940s, three extraordinary people, two patients and a surgeon, became pioneers in the still-emerging field of sex reassignment surgery. One was Laura Maude Dillon, who hailed from Irish nobility and was the first person to undergo surgical treatment to transition from female to male. The second was Robert Cowell, who was a Spitfire pilot and a celebrated racing driver who transitioned from male to female. The third was a pioneering surgeon, Sir Harold Gilles, who performed most of the difficult surgeries on them.
Laura Dillon was born in London on 1 May 1915. Just ten days later, her Australian mother died, leaving her in the care of her alcoholic father, Robert Dillon. He was heir to the baronetcy of Lismullen (Lismullin), County Meath, Ireland. Laura was raised by her father’s unmarried sisters on the English south coast. When she was 10 years old, her brother, also Robert, inherited the baronetcy from their uncle, John Fox Dillon, and for the next four years, the siblings spent a fortnight of their school holidays on the Lismullen Estate. Their father had died just weeks before his brother John, leaving Robert Junior to inherit.
Laura attended Brampton Down Girl’s School in Folkstone and in 1934, she went up to Oxford, initially to study theology at the Society of Oxford Home-Students (later to become St. Anne’s College).
It was here that Dillon began rowing, an outlet that allowed her to give vent to her masculinity. She cut her hair short and began dressing like a man. In 1935, she rowed in the two-seat of the Oxford University Women’s Boat Club crew that beat the Cambridge representatives, Newnham College Boat Club. In 1936 she stroked the University crew to victory over Cambridge, again represented by Newnham College, and won a second Blue.
The 1935 race was a timed event, Oxford winning by six seconds over a half-mile course on the Tideway. As president of O.U.W.B.C., Dillon introduced a programme of reform, bringing in a coach; an old Leander man called Danks (not a name I’m familiar with), for the crew and was instrumental in changing the way the race was run. As a result of these reforms, the 1936 race, held on the Isis, was the first side-by-side race between the universities, allowing a verdict of ‘half-a-length’ in Oxford’s favour to be recorded.
Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club was not founded until 1941, but Oxford University Women’s Boat Club had come into being in 1926. This allowed Oxford to select crews from more than a single college and award Blues. I cannot find any record of Dillon racing in 1937, but in 1938 the O.U.W.B.C. was unbeaten. Dillon stroked the crew to victories over London University Boat Club, Civil Service Boat Club and King’s College London Boat Club. However, she was denied a third Blue when the race against Cambridge could not be held owing to the illness of one of the ‘Light Blue’ crew.
As well as competitive rowing, Dillon once rowed a coxless pair with another woman, from Oxford to Putney, putting up in hotels overnight. She graduated in 1938 and the decade that followed was fateful but before leaving Oxford for good, she joined up with three other women, crossed the English Channel and raced at Amsterdam and Frankfurt regattas, albeit without success.
Having moved to Bristol to work as a laboratory technician, Dillon began a testosterone course, and in 1942, a house surgeon at the Bristol Royal Infirmary carried out a double mastectomy on her. The rowing connection endured in Bristol as Dillon coached the women’s rowing club at Bristol University. The war dragged on and Dillon, now working in a motor garage, began to pass permanently as a man. In 1944, ‘she’ officially became ‘he’ when the name on Dillon’s birth certificate was changed to ‘Laurence Michael’ and the sex on the document was changed to ‘male’.
These changes would eventually cause Michael the most awful rejection by his family. As ‘male’, he was presumptive heir to the Baronetcy held by his brother who ostracized him when he found out about the operation and the new name.
As well as continuing his transition and working in the garage in Bristol, Michael began studying science at The Merchant Venturers’ Technical College. This preparatory course was enough for him to win a place at Trinity College, Dublin (1945-51), beginning in their pre-medical year before moving on to read medicine. Having passed the university entry interview, he faced a second by his brother, who he called Bobby, now resident in Lismullen, 26 miles north of Dublin. They agreed that Michael would never admit to any relationship with him for fear of causing a scandal.
The temptation to join the Dublin University Boat Club was great and in doing so, he used membership of the Brasenose Second Eight to explain his previous rowing experience. In his first season with the club, he bypassed the maiden (now called novice) grade and raced as a junior (now called intermediate). This allowed him to claim Junior Eight Colours but in his own words: ‘… my particular brand of humour demanded that after my Oxford “blue” I would be satisfied with nothing less than Senior Eight Colours.’
His appearance on the upper reaches of the Liffey warranted an honourable mention in the club’s history, In Black & White published in 1991: ‘The war is now over, and the chorus is strengthened by the addition of a couple of ex-servicemen, and by a chap called Dillon, reputedly the subject of the first sex-change operation.’
Using the resources of the online Irish Rowing Archives, I have researched Michael’s races with Dublin University Boat Club to see if he had rowed in a colours race. My search would suggest that he didn’t, but he did race as a senior for the club at least once in 1948 [E&OE]:
2 March 1946 – Wylie Cup (Irish Universities Rowing Championships) – Junior VIII (four-seat at 11 stone 11 pounds) lost to Queen’s University Belfast Boat Club.
18 May 1946 – Dublin Head of the River – Clinker VIII (D.U.B.C. 2nd crew – six-seat at 11 stone 12 pounds).
7 June 1946 – Trinity Regatta – Junior VIII (six-seat at 12 stone 1 pound) Semi-Final – beat University College Dublin Boat Club.
8 June 1946 – Trinity Regatta – Junior IV (stroke-seat) Final – beat Bann Rowing Club.
8 June 1946 – Trinity Regatta – Junior VIII (six-seat) Final – beat Bann Rowing Club.
1947 appears to be a ‘fallow’ year, more than likely because Dillon was undergoing and recovering from treatment received in England. His autobiography states that he was rowing in the autumn of 1947 (training for the 1948 season).
5 June 1948 – Trinity Regatta – 2nd Senior IV (stroke-seat at 11 stone 5 pounds) Final – lost to University College Dublin Boat Club. More about this race later.
None of these races would earn Dillon a Dublin University ‘Pink’, the equivalent of an Oxbridge ‘Blue’.
The Gannon Cup (Dublin’s University Boat Race) was instituted in 1947 and newspaper reports do not name Dillon in the D.U.B.C. crews for 1947 (L) or 1948 (R). Pictures kindly supplied by Kieran Kerr, Irish Rowing Archives.
The Irish Amateur Rowing Union introduced Umpires Licences in the 1970s. Before that, clubs nominated a list of starters, umpires and judges and the Union published these in what became known as The Blue Book. In 1948, Trinity Regatta was a two-day event beginning on a Friday afternoon and concluding the following day. The Regatta Returns submitted to the Union list ‘Dillon – D.U.B.C.’ as the starter for five races on Friday 4 June. It would appear that Dillon was nicely settled into the Dublin rowing scene if not wholly in agreement with the style of rowing practised by the coaches as this quote from his autobiography demonstrates:
… there was a further problem, less easily solved. Oxford rowed the orthodox style while Trinity favoured a rather spurious type of Fairbairnism. Rowing men will know that the gulf between the bigoted adherents of each style is as rigid as that between Roman Catholic and Protestant. If I rowed, it would have to be Fairbairn which was anathema to me.
Dillon qualified as a doctor in 1951. However, I found no record of him racing for D.U.B.C. after 1948 and thought that was the end of his rowing career. However, quite by chance, whilst searching the Regatta Returns section of the Irish Rowing Archives, his name cropped up again in 1949 as the official starter for the first six races of that year’s Trinity Regatta – only this time his affiliation is given as Neptune Rowing Club. The second three years of his studies in Dublin (Autumn 1948 to Summer 1951) were spent working as a trainee in the city’s hospitals but that wouldn’t necessarily have excluded him from membership of the University Boat Club.
Neptune R. C. is just upstream of D.U.B.C. but on the other side of the river, and Dillon was not only a regatta official for them but raced in their ‘Green and Black’ colours for two seasons, always in their first senior crew [E&OE]:
7 July 1949 – Galway Regatta – Senior VIII Championship of Ireland (two-seat at 12 stone) Semi-Final – finished second to D.U.B.C. with Limerick Boat Club in third place. D.U.B.C. beat U.C.D in the final by one-and-a-half lengths.
The 1949 D.U.B.C. crew was considered fast enough to challenge for the Ladies’ Plate at Henley Royal Regatta where they always race as Trinity College, Dublin (T.C.D.). Fate dealt them a poor hand when they were drawn in a preliminary race against the outstanding Lady Margaret Boat Club (L.M.B.C) crew from Saint John’s College, Cambridge. L.M.B.C. was laden with future Cambridge Blues and a one-and-a-half length verdict sent the Dublin club home to think again whilst the winners went on to set a new course record in the semi-final. No other crew came as close to Lady Margaret as Trinity had in that first race but that was scant reward for the coaches who had plotted Trinity’s bid for Henley glory. Days later, Neptune with Dillon onboard, led them by two lengths in the race for the Irish Championship before the students reeled them in and crossed the finish line barely a length to the good.
15 July 1949 – Dublin Metropolitan Regatta – Senior VIII (two-seat at 11 stone 4 pounds) Semi-Final – Lost to Dublin University Boat Club,
1 August 1949 – Carrick-on-Shannon Regatta – Senior IV (stroke-seat at 11 stone 4 pounds) Semi-Final – Beat Lady Victoria Boat Club and Portadown Boat Club.
1 August 1949 – Carrick-on-Shannon Regatta – Senior IV Final – Beat Shannon Rowing Club. The umpire’s notes confirm that Shannon R. C. was disqualified.
1 August 1949 – Carrick-on-Shannon Regatta – Senior VIII (two-seat at 11 stone 4 pounds) heat – Beat Drogheda Rowing Club.
1 August 1949 – Carrick-on-Shannon Regatta – Senior VIII Quarter-Final – Beat Portadown Boat Club.
1 August 1949 – Carrick-on-Shannon Regatta – Senior VIII Semi-Final – Rowed Over.
1 August 1949 – Carrick-on-Shannon Regatta – Senior VIII Final – Beat the winner of the other semi-final (Shannon Rowing Club or Bann Rowing Club ‘A’). The umpire noted that this was the best race of the day.
The six races on 1 August, a bank holiday Monday, were scheduled to take place from 1 to 7.30 p.m. The regatta ran a little over time with the last race, the senior VIII final, finishing at 8.10 pm. Later that evening, the Regatta Dance – a staple of the Irish rowing scene – was held in The Gaiety Ballroom with live music provided by Frank Murray & His Band. The dance started at 10 p.m. and finished at 3 a.m. The pubs got the early business before the crowd moved on to the Ballroom of Romance, which was ‘soft drinks only’.
9 June 1950 – Trinity Regatta – Senior VIII (stroke-seat at 11 stone 6 pounds) Semi-Final – Lost to D.U.B.C.
9 June 1950 – Trinity Regatta – Senior IV (stroke-seat at 11 stone 6 pounds) Semi-Final – Lost to Lady Elizabeth B.C.
It appears that Dillon started the 1950 season in the stroke seat of the Neptune senior VIII but failed to hold his place because of form or other commitments. With only one change in personnel, M.J. Moore coming into the crew at four and J.F Swanton moving from four to stroke, Neptune were victorious at Dublin Metropolitan, Cork, Limerick and Carrick-on-Shannon regattas.
Despite Neptune’s successes, D.U.B.C. remained the top Irish crew in 1950. They reached the final of the Ladies’ Plate at Henley taking the scalps of the Cambridge crews from Jesus and Pembroke colleges in the quarter-final and semi-final, respectively. New College, Oxford, held off a late challenge in the final to claim victory over Trinity, who once again returned from Henley and became Irish champions. That race, a straight final, was held on Wednesday, 12 July, at New Ross Boat Club Regatta.
It was the discovery that Dillon had raced for Neptune R. C. that prompted me to seek out a copy of his autobiography to try and find the reason for the move away from D.U.B.C. Chapter 6 – ‘Medical Student’ reveals all. Dillon did remarkably well in the Trial Eights for the 1948 season. His crew, composed of second and third VIII men, beat an old boys crew and they were asked to race again immediately against the first VIII, who they beat by two lengths. The next term he was in the senior VIII, but it was discovered that he would not be eligible for the Ladies’ Plate at Henley, since an Edwardian rule forbade any oarsman who had been matriculated more than five years from taking part. Not being eligible for the Henley crew meant he was out of the VIII. However, in the Summer of 1948, he was ‘given’ a four to stroke to allow him to receive his Senior Colours. This was the 2nd senior fours race at Trinity Regatta on 5 June which D.U.B.C lost to their rivals U.C.D. It is probably the revelation of this nice gesture by the club that has given wings to the rumour that Dillon won ‘Blues’ as both a man and as a woman.
The Regulations for D.U.B.C. Colours (Maiden, Junior and Senior) applicable at the time and awarded by the Boat Club can be read here. They are ‘club colours’ and are not comparable to the ‘Blues’ awarded by Oxford University which are awarded by the independent Oxford University Blues Committee.
Despite his successes rowing with Neptune R. C., Dillon mentions them only once in his autobiography:
… but if I could not go to Henley, I could not row in the Senior Eight anymore, for this was the peak of the rowing endeavour each year. Next year, therefore, I joined Neptune Boat Club [sic], a town club, and viewed the College regattas through the eyes of the town boys who regarded the undergraduates as “snooty” in the extreme.
As Dillon progressed with his medical studies in Dublin, he underwent a series of genital reconstructive operations by Gilles at Rooksdown House, Basingstoke (1945-49). Following his graduation from Trinity, he found work in a small hospital north of Dublin as a Resident Medical Officer (1951-52). In time, he was contacted by Roberta Cowell (previously Robert Cowell, the former racing driver), who had read his 1946 book Self: A Study in Ethics and Endocrinology. Cowell was interested in Dillon’s sympathetic medical contacts, but Dillon fell in love with her and got his heart broken. Devastated, Dillon left Ireland and joined the Merchant Navy, signing up as a ship’s surgeon (1952-58). If Facebook existed at the time, I think Michael’s relationship status would have read ‘It’s complicated’.
Alas, the contentment felt by Dillon didn’t last. In 1954, the magazine Picture Post published an article on Cowell and shortly after, her autobiography Roberta Cowell’s Story was released to a readership looking for sensationalism. It led to Michael Dillon being identified as the doctor that had carried out the illegal (at the time) orchiectomy on Cowell. The media publicity surrounding the news caused Dillon to flee. In May 1958, the Sunday Express printed an article containing an interview with Dillon’s brother Robert; either someone had triggered that Debrett’s and Burke’s peerages differed by referring to Michael as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ respectively, or they were tipped off by Cowell.
Dillon resigned his post as ship’s surgeon and disembarked in Kolkata (at the time Calcutta). For the next four years, he practised Buddhism, became a monk (of sorts), and changed his name to Lobzang Jivaka. He died on 15 May 1962 at the young age of 47 having suffered from malnutrition and pneumonia. His autobiography Out of the Ordinary: A Life of Gender and Spiritual Transitions was finally published by Fordham University Press (New York) in 2017. His brother, Sir Robert William Charlier Dillon, 8th Baron of Lismullen, had wanted the original draft from 1962 destroyed but Michael’s London literary agent, John Johnson, successfully defended all legal attempts to make him hand it over. The Lismullen Baronetcy became extent on the death of Sir Robert who died on Christmas Day 1982.
In 2015, Channel 4 Television broadcast The Sex Change Spitfire Ace, a reference to Roberta Cowell, in their Secret History series. I recorded it, hoping that it would include a little about Dillon and perhaps even touch on his rowing. Well, my Sky Box went to the great TV graveyard, taking with it the precious recording of the Channel 4 documentary. It covered Dillon as much as Cowell and is well worth watching because it has the only known video of Laura Dillon rowing. The good news is that it has surfaced on the Chinese video-sharing site Bilibili where you can watch Secret History: The Sex Change Spitfire Ace advert free. Go here: bilibili.com/video/av3267451/ (the rowing clip starts at nine minutes).
After reviewing the evidence, I declare the result of the case as: Blues 2 – Pinks 0. Leave to Appeal granted.