Biography of Lili Elbe, Pioneering Transgender Woman

Lilli Elbe
Hoyer, N., ed. Man Into Woman. Jarrolds, 1933.

Lili Elbe (December 28, 1882– September 13, 1931) was a pioneering transgender woman. She experienced what is now known as gender dysphoria and was one of the first individuals known to receive sex reassignment surgery. She was also a successful painter. Her life was the subject of the novel and film The Danish Girl.

Fast Facts: Lili Elbe

  • Occupation: Artist
  • Known For: Believed to be the first recipient of gender confirmation surgery
  • Born: December 28, 1882, in Vejle, Denmark
  • Died:  September 13, 1931, in Dresden, Germany

Early Life

Born in Vejle, Denmark, Lili Elbe was assigned male at birth. Some sources believe that she was intersex, having some female biological characteristics, but others dispute those reports. Some think she may have had Klinefelter Syndrome, the presence of two or more X chromosomes in addition to the Y chromosome. Destruction of medical records leaves these questions unanswered.

Elbe studied art at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, Denmark. There, she met illustrator and painter Gerda Gottlieb, who was accomplished in both art nouveau and art deco styles.

Marriage and Painting

Elbe and Gerda fell in love and married in 1904, when Elbe was perceived to be a cisgender man. They both worked as artists. Elbe specialized in landscape paintings in a Post-Impressionistic style while Gerda found employment as a book and magazine illustrator. Elbe exhibited works at the prestigious Salon d'Automne in Paris, France.

Around 1908, Danish actress Anna Larssen failed to show up for a modeling session with Gerda Wegener. Over the telephone, the actress suggested that Elbe wear women's clothing and substitute as a model due to his delicate build. He was hesitant at first but agreed after pressure from Gerda. Lili later wrote, "I cannot deny, strange as it may sound, that I enjoyed myself in this disguise. I liked the feel of soft women's clothing. I felt very much at home in them from the first moment." Lili Elbe soon became a frequent model for their wife's work.

After walking in on a modeling session, Anna Larssen suggested the name "Lili" for the new persona. It was soon adopted, and Lili began appearing more often outside of modeling sessions. The surname "Elbe" was later chosen in honor of the river that flows through Dresden, Germany, the site of her last surgeries. In her autobiography, Lili Elbe expressed that she eventually "killed" who she used to be, while setting herself free, when she chose to have sex reassignment surgery.

In 1912, when word emerged that the model for Gerda's work was actually her spouse, also known as Elbe when they were perceived as a cisgender man, the couple faced scandal in their home city of Copenhagen. The couple left their country and moved to the more accepting city of Paris, France. Throughout the 1920s, Lili frequently appeared at events. Gerda often presented her as the sister of her spouse, who others assumed was a cisgender man.

By the end of the decade, Lili became desperate to live life as a woman. Doctors and psychologists labeled Lili a schizophrenic to describe this internal conflict. She chose May 1, 1930, as a suicide date. In February 1930, however, she learned that the doctor Magnus Hirschfeld might help her begin the transition process.


Lili Elbe underwent a series of four or five sex reassignment surgeries beginning later in 1930. Magnus Hirschfeld consulted on the procedures while gynecologist Kurt Warnekros performed them. The first involved removal of the testicles and took place in Berlin, Germany. Later surgeries implanted an ovary and removed the penis and took place in Dresden, Germany. The planned final operation involved implantation of a uterus and construction of an artificial vagina. Some reports emerged that the surgeons found rudimentary ovaries in Lili's abdomen.

Later in 1930, Lili obtained an official passport under the name Lili Ilse Elvenes. In October 1930, King Christian X of Denmark officially annulled her marriage to Gerda Gottlieb. Their parting was amicable. Lili was finally able to officially live her life as a woman.

Lili ended her career as an artist, believing that the work as a painter belonged to the cisgender man people perceived her to be. She met and fell in love with French art dealer Claude Lejeune. He proposed, and the couple planned to marry. Lili hoped surgery would allow her to bear a child to build a family with her husband.


In 1931, Lili returned to Dresden, Germany for surgery to implant a uterus. In June, the surgery took place. Lili's body soon rejected the new uterus, and she suffered from an infection. Drugs to prevent rejection did not become readily available until fifty years later. Lili died on September 13, 1931, from cardiac arrest brought on by the infection.

Despite the tragic nature of her death, Lili expressed to friends and family that she was grateful for the opportunity to live life as a woman following the surgeries. Reflecting on life after her first surgery, she wrote, "It may be said that 14 months is not much, but they seem to me like a whole and happy human life."

Legacy and The Danish Girl

Unfortunately, many gaps in the life story of Lili Elbe existed. Books at Germany's Institute for Sexual Research relating to her story were destroyed in 1933 by Nazi students. Allied bombing raids in 1945 destroyed the Dresden Women's Clinic and its records during World War II. For researchers, the process of sorting myth from fact is difficult. Much of what is known about Lili Elbe comes from her autobiography Man Into Woman published by Ernst Ludwig Harthern-Jacobson under the pseudonym Niels Hoyer after her death. It is based on her diaries and letters.

Many researchers believe that Lili Elbe was the first woman to receive sex reassignment surgery. However, some dispute the fact. Whether unique or not, the surgery was highly experimental in the 1930s.

In 2000, author David Ebershoff published his novel The Danish Girl, based on Lili Elbe's life. It became an international bestseller. In 2015, the novel was made into a film of the same name.


  • Hoyer, Niels, editor. Man Into Woman: An Authentic Record of a Change of Sex. Jarrold Publishers, 1933.
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Lamb, Bill. "Biography of Lili Elbe, Pioneering Transgender Woman." ThoughtCo, Aug. 1, 2021, Lamb, Bill. (2021, August 1). Biography of Lili Elbe, Pioneering Transgender Woman. Retrieved from Lamb, Bill. "Biography of Lili Elbe, Pioneering Transgender Woman." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).