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John Money, 84; Doctor Pioneered Study of Gender Identity in 1950s

July 13, 2006|Kelly Brewington | The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — Dr. John Money, a leading sex researcher who pioneered the study of gender identity and helped establish Johns Hopkins Hospital as the first one in the United States to perform adult sex-change operations, has died. He was 84.

The controversial scholar, who coined the term "gender role," died Friday at St. Joseph Medical Center in Baltimore of complications from Parkinson's disease.

As director of the Psychohormonal Research Unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Money did groundbreaking research. 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 a protege of Money.

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

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.

Money's belief that gender could be assigned to a child before age 3 played out in a radical experiment that became devastating for him and the child on whom it was performed.

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

But by the time Brenda was a teenager, it became clear that 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, Reimer condemned the experiment and spoke of his anguish. He committed suicide in 2004.

"I think it devastated" Money, 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."

Money led an eccentric lifestyle, friends said. He bought his clothes from secondhand stores and rarely threw away anything that he thought could be reused. He was married but quickly divorced in the 1950s, and had no children.

Eileen Higham, a clinical psychologist who worked for 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, Money moved to the United States in 1947 to study at the Psychiatric Institute of the University of Pittsburgh.

He left Pittsburgh for Harvard University, where he earned a doctorate in 1952.

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

Much of Money's collection now sits in a gallery in the town of Gore, New Zealand, in a wing named after him.

A collection of Money's professional writings is housed at the library of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University.

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