1918 - 2011

Roberta Cowell was born in Croydon, England on April 8, 1918. At 16 she left school and joined the Royal Air Force, but abandoned training due to air-sickness. In 1936 Cowell, who was assigned male at birth, entered college to study engineering and the same year began motor-racing. In 1940 he joined the British army, becoming a captain in 1941. In June 1941, she married Diana Margaret Zelma Carpenter who gave birth to their two daughters. In 1942, Cowell transferred from the army into the RAF and saw battle action as a fighter pilot. In November 1944, Cowell’s aircraft was hit by enemy fire. Cowell was captured and put in Stalag Luft 1. After losing 50 pounds as a POW she was freed in April 1945. Back in England, Cowell began an engineering company focused on building racing cars. She also competed as a driver. In 1948 her marriage collapsed. Cowell never saw her daughters again. Depressed, she sought psychiatric help. Cowell’s sessions revealed that her unconscious mind was predominantly female. After reading Michael Dillon’s 1946 book Self: A Study in Endocrinology and Ethics, which contains a section discussing gender confirmation surgeries, Cowell wrote to Dillon and the two became friends. Dillon subsequently performed an inguinal orchiectomy on Cowell. When Cowell presented herself to a private gynecologist she obtained a document stating she was also intersex. A new birth certificate was issued with her recorded sex as female. In 1951, Cowell underwent vaginoplasty. In 1952, Christine Jorgensen had caused a sensation. Deeply in debt from medical procedures, Cowell sold her story. The fee from the resulting book was enough to pay her debts. Cowell continued motor racing and flying. Embittered by life, in 1972 Roberta gave an interview condemning other trans people, criticizing the "permissive society", and warning against following in her footsteps. Afterwards, Cowell withdrew from the public eye. In the 1990s, Roberta moved into sheltered accommodation. She died at age 93 on October 11, 2011. Her unpublicized funeral was only attended by 6 people and news of her passing did not run in the papers until two years later.


Gender Female

Sexual Orientation Queer

Gender Identity Intersex Transgender

Ethnicity Caucasian/White

Nations Affiliated United Kingdom

Era/Epoch Cold War (1945-1991) Interwar Period (1918-1939) World War II (1939-1945)

Field(s) of Contribution



Sports & Fitness

World History

Commemorations & Honors

Shelsley Walsh Speed Hill Climb Winner (1957)


Original Biography Author
Owen Keehnen
Biography Edited By
Allo Kerstein
Resources Coordination
Carrie Maxwell