Lili Ilse Elvenes (December 28, 1882 - September 13, 1931), better known as Lili Elbe, was a Danish painter and transgender woman. She was one of the earliest people to receive gender confirmation surgery.[1]

Early life[]

Elbe was born on December 28, 1882, in the small fjord-side town of Vejle, Denmark. She was an artistic and precocious child. As a teenager, she traveled to Copenhagen to study art at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.[2] There, Elbe met Gerda Gottlieb, whom she would eventually marry.[1]

Marriage and career[]

Elbe and Gottlieb married in 1904 at the ages of 22 and 19 respectively.[1][2] The two artists enjoyed painting together and while Elbe had a penchant for painting landscapes, Gottlieb was a successful book and fashion magazine illustrator.[2] Gottlieb asked Elbe to sit as her model and don feminine clothing for her art-deco portraits of high-fashion women; at the time, Elbe had not transitioned from her assigned gender at birth.[1]

Through Gottlieb's portraits, Elbe was transformed into the beautiful woman she had always wanted to be, and she began to envision living life as a woman. After traveling throughout Europe until 1912, the couple finally settled down in Paris, where Elbe transitioned her public identity to Lili and lived openly as herself for the last 20 years of her life. She chose the surname "Elbe" after the river in Central Europe that flows through Dresden, the location of the last of her gender confirmation surgeries.[1]

Gender reassignment[]

In the 1920s, Elbe learned of the possibility of permanently transforming her body from male to female at the German Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin. Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld founded the clinic in 1919 and coined the term "transsexualism" in 1923.[1] There she underwent the first of four operations in 1930, a surgical castration procedure. The next three surgeries were conducted in 1930 and 1931 by Dr. Kurt Warnekros at the Dresden Municipal Women's Clinic and included a penectomy and the transplantation of human ovarian tissue. According to Trans History, "some reports indicate that Elbe already had rudimentary ovaries in her abdomen and may have been intersex", and a subsequent unspecified surgery some weeks later that involved the insertion of a cannula. These surgeries permitted her to change her legal name and sex, and she received a passport as Lili Elbe with a female gender marker.[1]

Although some reports indicate that Elbe was the very first gender confirmation surgery recipient, she was not.[1]

Post-op and death[]

Elbe likened her female transformation to being born again and regarded it as an affirmation of her true nature. However, because she was now legally recognized as a woman, King Christian X of Denmark nullified her marriage to Gerda Gottlieb in 1930, after which the two parted ways amicably.[1]

Another door opened for Elbe when an old friend requested her hand in marriage.[1] She planned a final surgery that involved a uterus transplant and the construction of female genitalia. She did this in hopes that the procedure would allow her to have intercourse with her fiancé and eventually become a mother.[1] Before being provided the chance, Elbe died from heart paralysis shortly after at the Women's Clinic in Dresden while recovering from her final surgery in 1931, just shy of her 49th birthday.[1]


Elbe's story was published after her death under her pseudonym Niels Hoyer.[2] It culled her life's history from her personal diaries in accordance with her last wishes. The book, Fra Mand Til Kvinde, was first published in 1933 in Danish; German and English editions quickly followed, including reissues of the English version in 1953 and 2004. Man Into Woman was one of the first widely available books about a transgender person's life.[1]

The American film The Danish Girl (2015), inspired by the 2000 book of the same name, was based on Elbe's life story.[3] Cisgender actor Eddie Redmayne was controversially cast in the role of Elbe.[4]


  • Elbe's close friend Ernst Ludwig Harthern-Jacobson is often credited with writing Fra Mand Til Kvinde, though this is not the case.[2]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 "Lili Elbe Biography" by Worthen, Meredith on Published September 10, 2015 by (Archived on 2022-01-22)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 "Lili Elbe Biography" by Blumber, Naomi on Published 2021 by Britannica. (Archived on 2022-01-22)
  3. "The Danish Girl" on <>. Published by IMDb. (Archived on 2022-01-22)
  4. "Eddie Redmayne says it was a mistake to play trans role in The Danish Girl" on <>. Published November 22, 2021 by BBC. (Archived on 2022-01-22)