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Milton Edgerton, trailblazing plastic surgeon for children and transgender patients, dies at 96

Washington Post

When Milton Edgerton began his career as a plastic surgeon, his patients were wounded veterans of World War II, troops scarred by shrapnel or bullets or flames.

Later, as one of the foremost medical practitioners at Johns Hopkins University and the ­University of Virginia, he treated cancer patients and burn victims. He reconstructed hands, breasts, ears and — on one headline-grabbing occasion — used novel surgical techniques to help a girl who was “born without a face,” as was widely reported at the time. 

By the mid-1960s, he was also treating transgender patients, then known as “transsexuals,” who turned to Dr. Edgerton in an era when few surgeons in the United States offered sex-reassignment operations.

“The self-confidence and sense of wholeness of the transsexual is what it’s all about,” he told the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, after co-founding the country’s first sex-reassignment surgery unit at Johns Hopkins. “This is really cosmetic surgery because these people are already living as members of the opposite sex. It is gender-confirmation surgery, not gender-change surgery.”

Dr. Edgerton, who was 96 when he died May 17 in Charlottesville, was widely recognized as one of the most daring and influential plastic surgeons in America. A founder of the Plastic Surgery Research Council, a leading scientific organization, he took on cases that some colleagues feared were too risky or controversial, and he served as a teacher and mentor to scores of younger students as the top plastic surgeon at Johns Hopkins and then U-Va.

“He was a master at patient conversation, a master patient manager and a master surgeon,” said Paul Manson, who succeeded Dr. Edgerton as chief of plastic surgery at Johns Hopkins. “You could name just about any item in plastic surgery and he was innovative.”

Dr. Edgerton wrote four textbooks, including one of the first works on human ear construction, and wrote more than 500 academic papers, presenting research on everything from X-ray exposure and thyroid cancer (they were linked, he found) to the purported medical consequences of bralessness. (Although freeing the nipple causes the breasts to sag, he told the Associated Press in 1972, “the only real objection to allowing the breasts to become pendulous is an aesthetic one.”)

The field of plastic surgery was still in its infancy when Dr. Edgerton began his medical studies at Johns Hopkins in the 1940s as a protege of John Staige Davis, one of the first dedicated plastic surgeons in the United States.

Dr. Edgerton later returned to become the school’s first plastic surgery resident. He was serving as its first full-time chief of plastic surgery when, in 1965, he joined psychologist John Money and endocrinologist Claude Migeon in founding the Johns Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic. Initially shrouded in secrecy, the clinic marked the first time an American hospital performed sex-reassignment surgeries, also known as gender-confirmation or gender-affirmation surgeries.

“If the mind cannot be changed to fit the body,” clinic chairman John E. Hoopes said, after the group began publicizing itself in 1966, “then perhaps we should consider changing the body to fit the mind.”

Dr. Edgerton had become interested in sex-reassignment surgery more than a decade earlier, around the time Christine Jorgensen traveled to Denmark for the procedure en route to becoming an actress, nightclub singer and America’s first transgender celebrity.

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