Hopkins pioneer in gender identity

Dr. John Money 1921-2006

July 09, 2006|By KELLY BREWINGTON | KELLY BREWINGTON,SUN REPORTER

Dr. John Money, one of the nation's pre-eminent sex researchers who pioneered the study of gender identity and helped establish Johns Hopkins as the first hospital in the country to perform adult sex-change operations, died Friday. He was 84.

The controversial scholar, who coined the term "gender role," died a day before his 85th birthday at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson of complications from Parkinson's disease, which he had battled for several years.

Dr. Money did groundbreaking research as director of the Psychohormonal Research Unit at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. He developed hormonal treatment to improve self-control of sex offenders and dedicated research to the virtually unexplored topic of infants born with ambiguous sex organs.

"People never thought about that. Before, you had male animals and female animals, and that was it," said Dr. Gregory K. Lehne, an assistant professor of medical psychology at Hopkins and protege of Dr. Money, whom he called "a genius."

"But he taught us gender is much more significant than having two sexes," Dr. Lehne said yesterday. "He identified what it means to be male and what it means to be female, and what it means to be in-between."

Dr. Money's theories also challenged taboos of 1950s-era sexuality, establishing the notion of gender roles and gender identity, terms that helped shape modern gender studies.

His most memorable and criticized work was advocating sex-change operations for patients confused over their gender, a position that was denounced by some colleagues who favored counseling instead of surgery. In 1979, Hopkins announced that it no longer would perform the operations.

His belief that gender could be assigned to a child before age 3 played out in a radical experiment that proved devastating for him and the child upon whom it was performed.

Canadian parents of twin boys sought Dr. Money's advice in 1967 after one of their sons suffered a botched circumcision. Dr. Money advised them that with hormones and sex-change surgery, the child could be raised as a girl.

But by the time Brenda was a teen, it became clear the plan wasn't working. Brenda became known as a boy, David Reimer, who later was the subject of the 2000 book As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl, by John Colapinto. In the book, Mr. Reimer decried the experiment and spoke of his anguish. Mr. Reimer committed suicide in 2004.

Dr. Money refused to speak publicly on the subject, said niece Sally Hopkins of Baltimore.

"I think it devastated him," Dr. Lehne said. "The controversy led to him being kind of withdrawn and somewhat bitter after seeing himself as misinterpreted and not being able to do anything about it."

Dr. Money believed that infants were born gender-neutral and that environment and upbringing were part of several complex factors, including biology, that determined gender.

"We shouldn't ask whether it's heredity or environment; that was a 19th-century way of looking at it. Today we know it's both," Dr. Money said in a 1982 article in The Sun. "It seems that every child is born with some predisposition to go both ways. Which way it will finally go is determined by its environment."

Despite the criticism of his views, Dr. Money continued his research as professor emeritus of medical psychology and pediatrics, and he continued to lead an eccentric lifestyle, said Dr. Lehne. He purchased his clothes from secondhand stores and rarely threw away anything that he thought could be reused.

"Having grown up poor, he saved everything; every envelope that came into the office, he would use again," Dr. Lehne said. "He carried this bag, and would take all the leftover bits of food home whenever he went out to dinner."

Dr. Eileen Higham, a clinical psychologist who worked for Dr. Money for several years in the 1970s, said: "As a person, I found him an outstanding intellect but not easy to get along with. I think he was widely misunderstood because he did not fit into the mainstream."

Born in New Zealand in 1921, Dr. Money moved to the United States in 1947 to study at the Psychiatric Institute of the University of Pittsburgh.

"He jumped on the first passenger ship to sail after the Second World War," said Ms. Hopkins said. "It was an exciting time, and he jumped right away onto this new science called psychology and came to America."

He left Pittsburgh for Harvard University, where he earned a doctorate in 1952 before moving to Baltimore. Music and art competed with science for Dr. Money's attention, said Ms. Hopkins, who lived next door to Dr. Money's modest rowhouse in East Baltimore.

Dr. Money lived within walking distance of the Hopkins medical campus for more than 40 years. The house boasted an eclectic collection of anthropological art he had amassed from traveling around the world, including a stint studying aboriginal communities.

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