He sailed to Australia on his father’s ship in 1875 and found employment as a master at a private school in Sydney. However, he was fired when his lack of experience was discovered. He made his living working as a private tutor before obtaining a position as a master at a grammar school.
While in Australia he read ‘Life in Nature’ by James Hinton who wrote on religious, social, and sexual matters. Reading this book provided some clarity to Ellis’ confused mind and he experienced a spiritual transformation.
He returned to England in 1879 with the aim of pursuing medical education. He wanted to study sexual issues and felt that he should first acquire knowledge about the human anatomy. He joined St. Thomas’s Hospital as a medical student.
A socialist, he became a member of the organization, Fellowship of the New Life which was founded by Thomas Davidson in 1883. Other prominent members of the group included Edith Lees, Edward Carpenter, Isabella Ford, and Frank Podmore.
Along with other members of the group, Ellis formed a socialist debating group the Fabian Society in 1884. It was named so in the honour of the Roman General, Quintus Fabius Maximus.
His first book, ‘The New Spirit’ was published in 1890. He discussed the sciences of anthropology, sociology, politics, feminism and disappearance of war in this book.
He co-authored the book ‘Sexual Inversion’ with John Addington Symonds in 1896. The book was originally written in German and later translated into English. The authors explored homosexual relationships in this work.
The book generated much controversy due to its subject matter. The authors had studied homosexuality from an objective point of view, and not as a crime or disease as was believed in those times. This caused outrage among the conservative Victorian society.
In 1906 he published the book ‘Erotic Symbolism, The Mechanism of Detumescence’ in which he discussed his own fetish, undinism or urolagina. He stated that when existing in only a slight degree, it must be regarded as a normal sexual emotion.
He also studied the concepts of autoeroticism and psychoanalysis which were further developed later on by Sigmund Freud. His contributions to the field of psychoanalysis have been immense.
He conducted pioneering research in what is today known as transgender identity. He was one of the first researchers to differentiate the concept of transgender identity from sexual inversion and homosexuality.
He joined several intellectuals of his era in their belief in the field of eugenics which advocated the examining of biological and psychological traits of breeding humans which could help in improving the quality of human population. He even served as the vice-president of the Eugenics Education Society.