Credit: Shutterstock/Roberta Cowell

Driving is what I do best. Jet planes don't have personality the way racing cars do

A racing car driver and brave RAF pilot, shot down and captured during the Second World War, Roberta “Betty” Cowell was also the first trans woman to undergo gender reassigment in Britain.

In 1948, just three years after the war in which she had fought had ended, Roberta – the daughter of a surgeon who grew up with the given name Robert – underwent her first pioneering procedure to transition from her assigned gender. When news broke about her transition in the early 1950s, she made a lucractive deal with top magazine Picture Post to tell her story. Not long after, she also brought out an autobiography.

Later Roberta would say that the masculine man she had formerly presented as, had been an attempt to hide the very feminine psyche she’d felt inside. Driving fast cars and flying continued to be her passion. She attracted publicity on motor racing circuits and came close to attempting a record-breaking flight across the South Atlantic, scuppered by technical issues which left her bankrupt.

From the 1970s on, she led a very quiet life in London, so much so, that news of her death not widely reported until two years afterwards.