The tragic story behind the world's first documented transgender person

A long list of advancements made in surgery and medicine have allowed transgender people to undergo gender confirmation surgery in ways far more successfully and safely executed than ever before.

But it can be easy to forget a time where the surgical success rate today was far lower and even unknown. And for that reason, we will never surely know who or how the first transgender person came to be.

However, there is a great deal of conjecture that transgender woman Lili Elbe's journey to becoming a woman wasn't just difficult, but unprecedented.

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Elbe, who also went by Lili Ilse Elvenes, was one of the first ever identifiable recipients of such a procedure in 1930.

She was born Einar Wegener in 1882 and became a landscape painter. It wasn't until Wegener posed for a painting by her wife and fellow artist, Gerda Gottlieb, that she realized she was Lili Elbe.

Subsequent to her discovery, Elbe began spending less time creating art and more time molding her newfound female persona. According to her autobiography, Man into Woman: The First Sex Change, Elbe started going out in public dressed as a woman and even claimed to be her own sister.

LILI ELBE (1886-1931). The first known recipient of sexual reassignment surgery.
LILI ELBE (1886-1931). The first known recipient of sexual reassignment surgery.

Lili Elbe (1886-1931) via Getty

Her wife became an essential part of her transition, providing her with the acceptance and love she otherwise didn't receive from others at the time. They later relocated to Paris where they felt a lesbian couple would be more socially permissible.

After several years in France, however, Elbe decided she could no longer be satisfied until she fully transitioned into a body that matched her identity. So, she traveled to Germany, where she underwent an operation unheard of in those times, a gender confirmation surgery.

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She had multiple operations under the supervision of an established sexual psychiatrist, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld. First, Elbe had her testicles removed, second, her penis, and she then received an ovary transplant, which her body reportedly later rejected.

Though she was able to legally change her name, her change of sex presented a legal problem as her and Gottlieb's marriage could no longer be recognized by the government due to the two being the same sex. Subsequently, the marriage was annulled and the two went their separate ways.

Elbe later attempted to have a uterus transplant in in 1931 and died from heart failure shortly after the surgical procedure.

Her story has since been told in her autobiography, Man into Woman: The First Sex Change, and, most recently, in The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff -- which was later adapted into a film in 2016.