“It is desirable that a man live in all respects so simply and preparedly that if an enemy takes the town... he can walk out the gate empty-handed and without anxiety.”
― Henry David Thoreau
To begin our week of daily articles, we have decided to look into the life of the transgender doctor, Sir Ewan Forbes. Forbes was born into a noble family, and later in life gained the title of baronet. From a young age, Ewan was not interested in conforming to gender norms. Through most of his childhood, Ewan was able to avoid acting and dressing as Scottish society expected him to and was only seen in traditionally female clothing on special occasions. Most of his life, that easiness followed him as it did for most people who were born into a privileged family like his.
After finishing his education at home to avoid a girl's boarding school, he was accepted to the University of Aberdeen as a medical student. In his time there, he continued wearing clothes that matched his gender without incident. In addition to a lack of resistance toward Ewan’s gender expression, there was a level of acceptance that is surprising to find in the 1930s. Ewan was not without friends, or without successes. He founded a dance company called “The Dancers of Don” with Isabella Mitchell – who would later become his wife – and was accomplished in many avenues, including the harp and public recitations. The latter of which, he won contests in. Though his father had not supported his pursuit of a degree in medicine, after his death, Ewan was left with 1,300 acres of land and more than enough to cover his expenses.
Life seemed to remain relatively easy for Ewan; he was able to obtain his degree in 1944, and was quick to be named Senior Casualty Officer, then become a general practitioner in Alford, Aberdeenshire. His success was not wholly in the professional field either. Soon after his placement as a general practitioner, he talked to the local sheriff and corrected the gender on his birth certificate, legally recognizing him as male. Only a short time after that, he was also able to marry Isabella Mitchell and even published in a local newspaper that people were now to refer to him as Ewan Forbes in replacement of his dead name. The announcement went shockingly well. Everyone seemed to accept this change without question, and Ewan was able to live his life as a good doctor to a small community and a good husband to his wife. It was only when his older brother died that trouble truly started for Ewan.
After his father had died, the title of baronet had been passed down to Ewan’s older brother. Passing it along to Ewan is where things became more difficult. It seemed that Ewan’s cousin, John Forbes-Sempill, believed that the title and inheritance were owed to him, as at the time women could not inherit what Ewan had. John then decided to take legal action to prove that the re-registration of Ewan as a man was not legitimate, and make sure the inheritance would be passed down to him instead. To protect the family’s reputation throughout the three-year long legal battle, the courts kept quiet about the lawsuit. Now, the records have been released to the public, and we can see an approximation of what happened.
Though it was true, allowing Ewan to have the inheritance if he had in fact been assigned female at birth would not have been legal, the re-registration would have to be voided for that to be legally confirmed. The re-registration was only permitted if:
“the sex of a child was indeterminate at birth, and it was later discovered ... that an error had been made."
This is what Ewan claimed, and it leads to a possibility we want to present: the possibility that Ewan Forbes was intersex. This theory would also explain why he was seen by twelve doctors, and they came back with the verdict that evidence to Ewan’s gender was inconclusive. It would also make sense of Ewan’s explanation of his gender to the press:
"...a ghastly mistake. I was carelessly registered as a girl in the first place, but of course, that was forty years ago ... the doctors in those days were mistaken, too ... I have been sacrificed to prudery, and the horror which our parents had sex."
Regardless of the state of his genitals, the judge ruled in Ewan’s favour, letting him inherit what was rightfully his and allowing Ewan to live the rest of his life quietly with his wife.
And here we find something we rarely get to see in our history; someone very ordinary. Ewan was all around very normal man except for the dispute over his gender.
He lived a normal life as a doctor and husband, and never really did much more than that. He was not an activist or an artist, and he wasn’t even an especially exceptional doctor. His life was not a very remarkable one, and that is actually what makes his story so noteworthy. Ewan had a quiet life, and it is said that his patients and wife were wholly supportive of his gender. Even the press didn’t make too much of a fuss over it. Although partly because they were silenced during the trial, we have to look at the fact that, before that point, he had been incredibly open with them, and no one seemed to mind.
He stayed as the doctor of his town, and while there were probably individual cases of conflict, there was never an incident large enough to be held on record. Ewan just lived as who he was, and the court case was the only large incident in his life. He was allowed to live in peace with his wife, and that is something the community often forgets about.
Not every queer person wants to change the world, and that’s okay. Some of us just want to get by with quiet lives and make ourselves homes, friends, and family, but don’t need anything beyond that. It is important to remind people that having that life is entirely possible. A Scottish man managed it in the thirties, and you can now. While the world can seem a daunting creature, the people in it can be much easier to live with than we sometimes think.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Reitwiesner, W. Ancestry of Ewan Forbes. Retrieved August 12 2016 from
Clan MacFarlane and associated clans genealogy. Ewan Forbes-Sempill. Retrieved
Scottish Places. Sir Ewan Forbes of Craigievar. Retrieved August 12 2016 from
Sir Ewan Forbes, 11th Baron Essay. Retrieved August 12 2016 from