Born Robert Cowell in Croydon, she was educated at Whitgift School and University College London. She was a Spitfire pilot and subsequently a prisoner of war in World War II, and a racing driver after the war. She had a vaginoplasty in 1951, via a surgical method invented and performed by Dr Harold Gillies. This occurred two years before Christine Jorgensen's surgery in Denmark. Roberta Cowell's surgical transformation and friendship with the female-to-male transsexual Michael Dillon, also operated on by the plastic surgeon Sir Harold Gillies, is documented in the book The First Man-Made Man by Pagan Kennedy . Roberta's life is described in her biography, Roberta Cowell's Story.
In 1951, Roberta was able to have her birth certificate changed, which later became impossible (following the Corbett v Corbett decision) until the recent Gender Recognition Act. She was thus technically in a same-sex marriage until her divorce.
Roberta Cowell died in October 2011, but this was known to few people, and was first reported two years later, in the Independent on Sunday.
- Roberta Cowell, the First British Transsexual, Transgender Zone Media Archives. http://www.transgenderzone.com/features/roberta_cowell.htm
- Roberta Cowell's Story by Roberta Cowell, Heinemann, 1954
- http://www.croydontrans.org.uk/roberta.shtml. A celebration of Roberta Cowell. Accessed: 2015-07-31. (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/6aQcjakRw)
- http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/its-easier-to-change-a-body-than-to-change-a-mind-the-extraordinary-life-and-lonely-death-of-roberta-cowell-8899823.htmlMatthew Bell, "'It's easier to change a body than to change a mind': The extraordinary life and lonely death of Roberta Cowell" Independent on Sunday 27 October 2013