Who was Dr James Barry (1789? – 1865) the tiny physician with red curls and a squeaky voice?
The doctor was caring and quarrelsome, dainty yet dashing. He shot a man in a duel and faced a court martial, yet still made it to the top of his profession in the British Army, finishing up as Inspector General of British Hospitals. Wherever Dr Barry served there was immense respect for his medical skills. A brilliant, able physician, he was independent and determined, living his life as he wanted.
Appearance: Less than five feet tall, he had delicate features, dressed in the most extravagant uniform which added to the impression of effeminacy, wore 3 inch shoe lifts and dyed his hair red. Beardless, he had a high squeaky voice and small, soft hands and was said to have “minced around”. His odd appearance was the cause of comment throughout his fifty-year career.
‘He was quite destitute of all the characters of manhood,’ wrote a colleague in Jamaica.
Personality: Dr Barry was cold, aloof, arrogant, quick-tempered and eccentric. Florence Nightingale described him as “a brute” and “the most hardened creature I ever met throughout the Army“. His lack of diplomacy inevitably resulted in conflict with colleagues and authorities. A typical bantam cock of a man, he loved to cause a scandal.
He was a good socializer and enjoyed dancing and flirting.He was a great conversationalist, boastfully telling wild stories of his adventures.
Wherever he went he was accompanied by a black servant nicknamed “Black John” and a series of pet dogs, all called “Psyche.” Barry would never allow anyone to see him undress and insisted that when he died “he should be buried in his bed sheets without further inspection.” He gave strict instructions that his body was not to be embalmed or ‘laid out’ in any way, but to be buried in whatever clothes he had died in and no post mortem was to be carried out.
Professionally: He fought for better conditions for the troops, working for the British Army Medical Service for almost 50 years. He reformed the treatment of leprosy, setting up the first permanent, specialised leper hospital at the Cape. In 1826 he performed the first Caesarian section in Africa with both mother and baby surviving. He prescribed bathing, fresh air, and fresh food, in an era that thought these things were harmful to the sick. He applied a ruthless regime of cleanliness to any building he used as a hospital and the mortality rate dropped instantly in any hospital he was in charge of. He was an apostle of scientific medicine and his pioneering insistence on the link between sanitation and health was ahead of its time.
A global humanitarian: Dr James Barry was a humanitarian, driven by principle, and utterly committed to the voiceless in society. He fought for the humane treatment of “women, children, slaves, prostitutes, prisoners, the insane, and the poverty stricken,” He invariably championed the neglected and oppressed of any race or station in life. Prisons, leper colonies, and indigent patients always received his attention, and he never accepted fees for his private practice. He had an uncompromising attitude to his patients and to authority, never pandering to corrupt or negligent practise. Working as he did all over the British Empire, his medical reform was global, threading together the care of the sick from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.
Surprise! Surprise!: He was a she!! And she was an Irishwoman from Cork!
What we know
In 1809, Cork woman Margaret Ann Bulkley disappeared and her mother’s “nephew,” James Barry appeared. Comparing the handwriting of the supposed dead daughter and James Barry showed they were the same person. ‘ Aunt’ dressed the teenager as a boy and enrolled him in Edinburgh School of Medicine. James Barry’s classmates made fun of him because he didn’t have a beard and was only five feet tall. But no one thought he was a girl. He qualified with an MD in 1812.
Why did Margaret’s uncle and his friends General Miranda and the Earl of Buchan concoct the ruse?
Ostensibly they wanted to help Margaret. They saw she was clever, talented and interested in medicine, so they hatched a plan to save her from a life of either marriage or spinsterhood in poverty. Margaret had little or no prospects and needed to complete her education to earn a living. With no fortune, and from a middle-class background, a “good”marriage would be difficult to achieve. Margaret’s mother wanted her daughter to have the means to provide well for herself. The ruse was a challenge, a chance to cock a snoot at the Establishment. They wanted to see if it could be done and they thought Margaret was the person who could make it work.
What drove Dr Barry to join the British Army after qualifying as a doctor?
Practical explanation: She wanted to escape from London and Ireland so nobody would recognize her as a woman or as Margaret Bulkely
Romantic explanation: She fell in love with a military man, and cross-dressed in pursuit of him.
Feminist explanation: She was an early feminist, taking the only possible route “she” could to a medical career.
How did Margaret/Dr Barry manage to pass the physical examination to join the British Army?
Maybe she got a substitute male take her place. Perhaps s/he obtained a certificate from a private doctor/friend/colleague saying he was in good health.
Comment: The ruse seemed to be a perfect one as no one apparently discovered it until . . . . .
Dr Barry died in 1865. After the funeral Sophia Bishop, the woman who laid out the body, revealed that James Barry was a woman, even though he was identified as a male on his death certificate and had spent 46 years as a man in the British Army .
Barry’s deathbed sex secret rocked the Victorian establishment. The army had been fooled and sealed Barry’s military record for 100 years. It would never do for people to know that the late great Dr. James Barry, high-ranking army officer and Inspector General of British Hospitals, was an Irishwoman from Cork called Margaret Bulkley.
Comment: Short of exhuming Barry’s remains, no-one will ever know for sure whether Dr Barry was actually a girl who struck a pioneering blow for women’s rights at a time when the concept did not even exist.
What did Dr Barry’s colleagues say?
The Dean of McGill Medical School in Canada, who had treated Barry for a chest infection a year earlier, explained his ignorance of Barry’s sex by stating the bedroom had always been in almost total darkness when he paid his calls and this was why he had failed to notice anything unusual. He’d assumed Barry was physically male, and told this to his medical students afterwards in lectures at McGill as a cautionary tale to warn them to make a thorough examination of all their patients.
Staff Surgeon Major Dr McKinnon, who had described Barry as male on her death certificate, admitted he hadn’t been sure whether Dr Barry was male, female or hermaphrodite, but that he had no purpose in making such a discovery.
Comment: Maybe colleagues felt sorry for Dr Barry as he so obviously did not cut a masculine figure. He was accepted by his world as the odd and brilliant maverick he undoubtedly was. Her true identity seems to have been curiously and protectively guarded by a surrounding society that questioned but did not pry.
Queries: 1) Was Margaret happy with her disguise as a male or did it imprison her for the rest of her life?
Since she chose to live as a man she may have decided that she liked the lifestyle better than the role reserved for women at the time. She may well have wanted to keep it up rather than risk losing everything. After all, she was trying to survive in the world by living a man’s life in order to access the privileges available only to men in that time and place.
2) How did the masquerade succeed?
It may seem remarkable that Dr Barry was able to maintain the disguise for 56 years without anyone suspecting that “he” was actually “she.” But it’s not really. We tend to take people at face value, accepting they are what they say. In any case in those days it was unthinkable that any woman could become a doctor or join the British Army.So it probably never crossed anyone’s mind that Dr Barry was anything other than a rather effeminate man.
3) What did the deception cost her?
Extreme private loneliness and isolation. Besides her mother and her servant, she had no one to confide in.
4) After decades of pretending did s/he consider herself to be a man? Or did s/he still identify as a woman?
Hard to say. After her death one of her chests was found to contain cut-out pictures of fashionable hats and frocks. Margaret might well have enjoyed the traditional feminine interest in her appearance, as is suggested by her dressing in rather flamboyant uniforms. What is clear is that Dr Barry did not want his birth gender to be known after his death and did not want his deception made public knowledge.
5) Could living as a man for so many years have had any ill effects psychologically?
Her combative personality might well have been expression of an inner struggle to keep up the pretense. It could have flared out in aggression at anyone who opposed her or suggested she was not 100% male. On the other hand it might well have been the irritation of an intelligent, competent doctor (male or female) when faced with the bureaucracy, prejudices and poor medical practice of the times.
Intelligence has no sex. Male or female Dr Barry had a career that anyone would be proud of. Cork woman Margaret Ann Bulkley was the first woman to qualify as medical doctor in the British Isles and to pursue a career as a surgeon. A war hero and medical pioneer, she saved the lives of soldiers and devoted her life to making the world a better place. At a time when a middle-class woman’s role in society was limited to hearth and home, her life and work were a living testimony that women had the ability to study at university, to become doctors and serve in the military.