Born in Germany in 1891, Dora Richter became a trans pioneer in the pre-Nazi era – but her exact fate remains unknown.
Little is known about her childhood except that her dysphoria seems to have been intense and began early; she was so insistent on her femininity that her parents allowed her to live as a girl and, according to surviving medical records, she attempted to remove her penis with a tourniquet at least once when she was six.
When she grew older, Dora – also called Döchen (little Dora) – moved to Berlin. Using her birth name, Rudolph, she worked as a male-presenting waiter or cook, in upmarket hotels during the summer season. For the rest of the year, she’d live as a female.
This double life was not without peril, however, even in the permissive Weimar Republic era; Dora was repeatedly arrested for wearing dresses in public and made to serve her time in male prisons.
Finally, after one such arrest around 1920, a more understanding judge released Richter into the care of Dr Magnus Hirschfeld, who promised her employment at his Institut fur Sexualwissenchaft, or Insitute for Sexual Science — the first modern research institute for queer and transgender health, nestled in Berlin’s idyllic Tiergarten park.
Dora lived and worked there as a woman, being paid as a housekeeper, for more than 10 years.
Finally, in 1922, Dora had the first of her surgeries. Under the auspices of Dr Erwin Gohrbandt at the Charité Universitatsmedizin, she underwent a surgery called an orchiectomy in which the testicles are removed. The surgeon also began studying the effect reduced testosterone had on Dora’s anatomy.
However, Dora had to wait nine more years before having her penis removed and being offered a vaginoplasty, becoming, as far as any surviving records show, the first person to have what was then referred to as a ‘sex-change’ operation. The procedure, which is Dora’s case was carried out by two doctors, including Levy-Lenz, involves the construction of a vagina.
It was this experimental but highly successful operation – with the following publicity – that attracted Lili Elbe to the institute. (check out The Danish Girl movie)
After receiving surgery that helped relieve the intense dysphoria she’d faced since childhood, Dora Richter was cut down just as her life was beginning to blossom.
In May 1933, some four months after Hitler came to power, a mob made up of right-wing students and possibly SS stormed the institute. They seized all Magnus Hirschfeld’s records and ransacked the building. Hirschfeld had already fled the Nazi terror and was living in France.
But Dora was still there – and was never heard from again.
Her character appears in a 1999 German film about Magnus Hirschfeld whose title translates as The Einstein of Sex.