Felix SpectorBMJ 2008; 336 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39520.528264.BE (Published 27 March 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:726
- Jeanne Lenzer
Felix Spector started his career as a general practitioner during the second world war. He soon became known as a doctor who specialised in an unusual operation—orchidectomies for men who wanted to have their testicles removed. Enthusiastic patients spread news of Spector’s work via the internet, and he became a central figure to a community of eunuchs in the United States, Britain, and Germany. A 2003 documentary, American Eunuch, featured Spector’s unusual practice and the men who sought him out.
Born in 1917 to poor, Russian Jewish immigrants, Spector grew up in a Philadelphia tenement. His father was a peddler who sold items from the trunk of his car along the New Jersey Turnpike, earning enough money to allow Spector to attend Temple University and the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, from which he graduated in 1942.
During the second world war Spector took over the practice of a doctor from a small town in Texas who was drafted for military service. His first brush with serious controversy—and the law—came during the 1940s when he was found guilty of performing abortions, which were illegal at the time. According to Jeff Adams, a close associate, Spector was reluctant to talk about this aspect of his work. As Spector grew older, he increasingly viewed his role in performing abortions as “something he was not proud of,” said Adams.
After the war, Spector moved to California, where he married his wife, Frieda. They had two children and later divorced. Spector, who returned to Philadelphia in 1957, began performing orchidectomies during the late 1950s and early 1960s, largely for men who didn’t have the money to travel to Stockholm for full gender reassignment but who wanted to begin the process of feminisation that came with orchidectomy and hormonal treatment.
Spector had several more run-ins with legal and medical authorities. He was arrested again in the 1960s for performing abortions and was also charged with falsifying pharmacy records, billing irregularities, and performing a castration of “grossly inferior quality,” according to Philadelphia City Paper (www.citypaper.net/articles/2006-04-06/cover.shtml).
His legal problems didn’t stop men from seeking Spector out, however, and the internet fuelled an explosion in Spector’s practice. It also brought a new type of patient to Spector’s door: men who didn’t want gender reassignment but who simply wanted their testicles removed. Their reasons were varied. Some said they were “over-sexed.” Others cited religious reasons, often citing a passage from the Bible, Mark 9:43, which reads, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” Other men sought castration, saying their wives weren’t interested in their sexual advances. Some men complained of murky and obsessive sexual urges they hoped to control. One man, reportedly without telling Spector, underwent castration while awaiting charges of child sexual abuse—for which he was later convicted.
The internet allowed men who had been castrated to develop informal support and information networks through online chat groups and websites. The website (www.eunuch.org) features a number of posts by men who often mention Dr Spector and who share their pre-surgical and post-surgical experiences. Spector’s career took off as a result, and it was boosted even further in 2000, when Spector launched his own (now defunct) website advertising his services and offering information about orchidectomies.
Spector was heavily criticised by mainstream surgeons who performed transgender surgery and who followed the standards of care set by the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association (now called the World Professional Association for Transgender Health). The standards include psychiatric counselling and a requirement that a surgical candidate must first live as a woman for up to a year before surgery. According to a 2002 article in Phillymag.com, Spector was the only doctor in the US who “routinely performs elective castration with few questions asked, which may, in part, explain his popularity.” The online magazine quoted Spector saying, “I don’t require any big red tape about it. Those who are out of control are constantly fighting this, and they can’t be talked into anything.”
Spector’s approach was defended by some men who said that without access to him they would be forced to resort to a shadowy world of unlicensed underground “cutters,” who, for a fee, would use kitchen knives and cattle castrators to remove their testicles. The underworld of cutters received attention after a number of people scattered across the US were arrested after botched castrations caused serious bleeding and even death.
By the end of Spector’s career, 40-50% of his practice consisted of “voluntary eunuchs.” Although a number of men who have been castrated talk about achieving a “eunuch calm”—a state of pleasant enjoyment of the world, undistracted by aggressive tendencies and sexual urges—the outcomes of castration were another cause of controversy. A few of the men went on to commit murders, some were depressed, and others didn’t necessarily end up with the sought-after lessening or termination of sexuality they desired; medical reviews showed that some eunuchs continued to have full erections and considerable sexual interests long after castration.
Spector was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease late in life and in 2002 was forced to give up his practice in Philadelphia when the medical board declared him “immediate danger to the public health and safety.”
During the last five years of his life Spector committed himself to supporting civil rights. He founded the G W Adams Educational Center, a historic site that was once part of the underground railroad for runaway slaves. The centre was simply the most recent effort in Spector’s “life-long commitment to civil rights for all people,” said his associate, Adams.
Felix Spector, retired doctor of osteopathy, Philadelphia (b 1917; q Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, 1942), died from pulmonary fibrosis on 5 December 2007.