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Case Study: John/Joan - The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl

For decades the John/Joan case apparently proved that nurture not nature dictates gender identity. In fact, the case was not a success and hid a personal tragedy for David Reimer.

Without a few unusual people, human behaviour would have remained a mystery - ordinary people whose extraordinary circumstances provided researchers with the exceptions that proved behavioural rules. Claudia Hammond revisits the classic case studies that have advanced psychological research.

Janet and Ron Reimer's twin sons, Bruce and Brian, were born in Winnipeg in Canada in August 1965. All went well until April 1966, when the twins were circumcised. In the process, Bruce suffered a catastrophic injury to his penis. A year later, on the advice of Dr John Money, founder of the Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins University Medical Centre in Baltimore, Bruce became Brenda and the Reimers began to raise their son as a daughter.

John Money published the case as one of successful gender re-assignment in 1975, when the twins were 9. Yet by the time Brenda was a teenager she was suicidal. When her parents finally told her the truth, Brenda decided to change back to her original gender; she became David Reimer.

The medical literature, however, continued to quote John/Joan as evidence of successful gender reassignment, until Milton Diamond, Director of the Pacific Centre for Sex and Society at the University of Hawaii, finally tracked down David Reimer and published an article in 1997. For the first time it was revealed that the re-assignment had not been a success. Journalist John Colapinto followed it up with a book about David in 2000.

As a man, David appeared finally to have found happiness in marriage and stepchildren. However, a series of events took their toll: his twin brother's death, the loss of his job, and separation from his wife all proved too much and he took his own life on 4 May 2004.

Producer: Marya Burgess.

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30 minutes


  • Wed 18 Aug 2010 11:00