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Dr. James Barry (1789-1865): The Man Who Was A Woman


London, 25 July 1865. It is unlikely that Sophia Bishop ever experienced a greater surprise. For the previous months, she had been serving as maidservant to Dr. James Barry, a former Inspector General of military hospitals. The unfortunate man, who was regarded as a household name in many circles of the British Empire, had succumbed to dysentery earlier that day and Sophia now laid out his body in preparation for the undertaker. However, when she unbuttoned his clothing, she was stunned to discover that the 76-year-old Irishman was in fact ‘a perfect female’. Not only that but Dr. Barry appeared to have given birth to a baby in her younger years.

150 years after her death, the story of Dr. James Barry continues to resonate as one of the most extraordinary in the annals of the 19th century. It also remains arguably the longest subterfuge of gender identity ever recorded.

Dr. Barry’s real name was Margaret Ann Bulkeley (or Bulkley) and she was born in Cork City in 1789. Jeremiah Bulkeley, her Dublin-born father, was a former weigh-bridge attendant who had opened up a grocery on the city’s Merchant’s Quay, or Cold Harbour Quay as it was then. His business prospered with the booming maritime trade from Cork Harbour but he then blew his small fortune on securing an expensive legal apprenticeship and a well-to-do bride for Margaret’s wayward older brother John.

By the time Margaret was a teenager, her father had been locked up in Dublin’s Marshalsea debtor’s prison. Margaret and her mother Mary Anne were left in Cork to live ‘in very indigent circumstances’. Mary Anne’s parents were Protestants who ran a pub called the Neptune on Merchant’s Quay. The sign outside the pub had been painted by Mary Anne’s belligerent older brother James Barry who subsequently moved to London where he became a renowned Romantic artist, being admitted and then expelled from the prestigious Royal Academy in London.

The elder James Barry died following a stroke in a London coffee house in 1806. In his will, he left some valuable assets to Mary Anne, which she sold in order to pay for her daughter’s education. Margaret was also introduced to some of her late uncle’s inner circle, most notably General Francisco de Miranda, the Venezuelan revolutionary.

Miranda had a home in London where Margaret reputedly spent much of her spare time perusing the rare medical books in his library. He was so impressed that he apparently suggested she study medicine formally and offered to give her work in Venezuela if she did.

In 1809, 19-year-old Margaret became one of over 900 students at the Edinburgh School of Medicine, one of the finest such schools in Europe. All well and good except that women were not permitted at such institutions. And so it was that, with the knowledge of her mother, General Miranda and some of her late uncle’s friends, Margaret assumed the identity of James Miranda Stuart Barry.

For the next three years, she buried her head in the study of 13 different subjects including Anatomy, Surgery and, significantly, Midwifery and Military Surgery. Army records would later show that only two other doctors in the entire British service mastered such a high number of subjects. During this time the 11th Earl of Buchan, a friend of her late uncle, invited her to avail of his extensive library at his home in the Scottish Borders.

College life was less successful though as Margaret became a laughing stock among the boys, not least due to her penchant for wearing an unfashionable overcoat with long skirts, presumably to cover her legs. A fellow student called Jobson tried to teach her how to box but gave up when the young ‘Irishman’ refused to strike out and kept her arms protectively crossed upon her chest.

She graduated with aplomb in July 1812 but even as she donned her gown, there was bad news from Venezuela where Miranda had been arrested and thrown into prison. The general died in jail four years later.

Meanwhile, James Barry went from the Royal College of Surgeons in London into the British Army where, maintaining her cover as a man, she served with distinction as a military surgeon in eleven different parts of the British Empire over the next 47 years.

Her career began with a posting to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa where, as physician to Lord Charles Somerset, the governor, she worked long hours to improve general sanitary conditions starting with the colony’s water system. When a friends’ wife was taken ill, Somerset heartily recommended her to ‘Doctor Barry, whose skill has attested wonders since he has been here.’

As Mark Twain later put it, ‘There were plenty of pretty girls, but none of them caught him, none of them could get hold of his heart; evidently he was not a marrying man.’ However, the five-foot tall doctor did become so friendly with Governor Somerset, a widower, that contemporaries became convinced the two were having a ‘homosexual affair’. The gossips had a field day in 1824 when a lewd and sexually embarrassing placard appeared on Cape Town bridge, obliging the Governor to sue for libel.

Two years later, Dr. Barry performed the first successful Caesarian section in African history, with mother and child both surviving. The grateful parents named their infant son James Barry Munnik in gratitude. This was over twenty years before the arrival of anaesthesia for such procedures.

During the 1830s and 1840s she served in many different spheres and there are miscellaneous stories, mostly hearsay, about her fighting duels and being briefly buried alive during a yellow fever epidemic. On the isle of St. Helena she established a new hospital for women and introduced daily surgeries for the poor. Her time in the Caribbean was complicated by her support of the abolition of slavery. She also campaigned for the rights of patients – particularly those who were marginalized and oppressed – and highlighted the importance of both diet and sanitation to public health.

While on an inspection tour of field hospitals during the Crimean War, she came up against Florence Nightingale who later branded her as a ‘blackguard’ and ‘the most hardened creature I ever met throughout the army’.

Presumably to embellish her cover as a man, she dressed with marked eccentricity, often wearing a red wig and three-inch heels to boost her height. A vegetarian and a teetotaler with a famously short fuse, her most trusted companion in later life were a Jamaican manservant called John and a poodle, although rumours would circulate that she had enjoyed some dalliances with society women in her younger years.

Her career culminated in Canada when she became Inspector General of Hospitals in 1857, the second highest position in her chosen profession. In this role, she made a considerable impact by proposing reforms including healthier food for soldiers, cleaner kitchens and separate quarters for married soldiers. She also stirred things up by championing the plight of otherwise ostracized leper communities.

Dr. Barry was retired on medical grounds in 1864 and died a year later. Although she left no will, she had repeatedly requested that no examination of her body be made after her demise and that he body be buried in whatever clothes she wore when she died. It was clearly her hope that, even after death, she would maintain the subterfuge that had initiated 56 years earlier, despite the challenges presented by the placard scandal of 1824.

Having broken with Dr. Barry’s wish, Sophia Bishop cashed in by revealing her discovery in a series of articles published in the popular press within weeks of the doctor’s death. She was the only person who came forward to say she had seen the doctor’s naked body, and it was also her description of stretch marks on the doctor that inspired the conceit that Dr. Barry had a baby.

Major D. R. McKinnon, Barry’s doctor, opined that it was ‘none of my business whether Dr Barry was a male or a female’ but claimed that he had wondered if ‘he might be neither, viz. an imperfectly developed man … but whether Dr Barry was a male, female, or hermaphrodite I do not know.’

In any event, the peculiar but brilliant Dr. Barry, nee Margaret Bulkeley, was certainly the first woman to graduate in medicine in the United Kingdom. Not until 1876 would Britain pass an act permitting women to enter the medical profession. She was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, London, where her gravestone gave full rank as Inspector General and named her ‘Dr. James Barry’.