The Secret Gender of Dr. James Barry, the Famous British Surgeon
Dr. James Barry was a renowned and acclaimed military surgeon in the British Army with an unbelievable secret, a secret “he” took to “his” grave. In this article, we will refer to Dr. James Barry with the pronoun “he.” It was the fact that Dr. Barry, the male military surgeon whose flourishing career spanned over 50 years, was actually born a woman named “Margaret Anne Bulkley.” His incredible story of secrecy and deceit, fueled by ambition and a passion for his profession, is nothing short of an absurd work of fiction. Since then, it has inspired numerous newspaper articles, plays, books, and movies.
But how did he manage to hide this secret of epic proportions for half a century?
What do we know about the early life of Margaret or Dr. James Barry?
A baby girl named “Margaret Bulkley” was born in Cork, Ireland, in about 1790. A daughter of a grocer, Margaret had a brother who wasted the family’s fortune. Her father, too, was thrown into prison because of high debts. Margaret and her mother were left on their own. Historians believe that she was sexually assaulted by an uncle as a child, which resulted in her giving birth to a daughter named Juliana, who was raised by her mother, but no historical evidence seals this theory.
Young Margaret and her mother, Mary-Ann Bulkley, moved to London to seek out an inheritance from the late James Barry, her uncle, also a famous painter and a Royal Academician. Margaret’s intelligence impressed James Barry’s intellectual friends, and it is believed that they helped to carry out this incredible plan so that she could study medicine.
Soon, Margaret took her uncle’s name, and James Barry “was born,” who enrolled in the School of Medicine in Edinburgh as a man. Margaret was never seen or heard of again until after James Barry’s death.
Dr. Barry’s career as a doctor and humanitarian was exemplary.
Dr. James Barry was a great doctor. He excelled at his studies and got his degree at the age of 22. He then signed up for the army as an assistant surgeon after successfully passing the examination of the Royal College of Surgeons. This started his glorious career of 50 years as a military surgeon across the British Empire, including Cape Town, Canada, the West Indies, and the Mediterranean. He rose in ranks as an Inspector General in charge of military hospitals and the second-highest medical office in the British Army.
He was a reformer. In all his postings, he helped colonies manage diseases like cholera and pushed for better sanitation conditions. He did not distinguish between the rich and the poor or the colonists and the slaves. Often, he spoke out against the unsanitary conditions in the garrisons, barracks, and asylums, exposed fraudulent medicine hawkers, and worked hard to improve access to clean water for both the rich and poor. Dr. Barry was a crusader, and like anyone ahead of his time, he faced criticism and pushback.
In 1813, Barry started his career as a Hospital Assistant in the British Army. As a doctor, he quickly proved his value and was promoted to Assistant Chief Surgeon. Later, he was stationed in Cape Town for a long time as the personal physician to the governor, Lord Charles Somerset. With him, he developed a strong friendship, which was the subject of much gossip. Later, it was speculated that Somerset may have known his secret.
In those days, most caesarian section deliveries ended with the death of the mothers, babies, or both. But Dr. James Barry performed one of the first documented successful C-section surgeries in Cape Town, where both the mother and the baby survived. This is considered his greatest medical achievement.
Dr. James Barry’s quirky personality drew a lot of attention.
Dr. James Barry’s personality was nothing short of an overblown, quirky, Dickensian character. Always dressed in an oversized overcoat, stylish clothes, and fancy wigs, Barry looked like a slender youth with his small figure. His boots were always two inches high, and the soles were three inches thick. He had expensive habits and was a vegetarian, something highly unusual at that time. He roamed around with a servant, a horse, and a dog named Psyche.
Probably, to overcompensate for his real gender, James Barry had to assert himself in ways that drew attention. He had an infamous reputation for hurling insults and shouting at anybody who stood in his way. According to historical records, even Florence Nightingale was a victim of his bad temper when he reprimanded her for wearing just a cap in the sun.
Barry would also often shout at his patients and, on more than one occasion, hurled medicine bottles at the wall in anger. He had also challenged an officer who irritated him to a duel, which ended well with the officer and Barry becoming friends for life. But his strange ways and temper also increased his popularity. Even the people who asserted that he was selfish, odd, and always bitter have testified to the fact that he was always kind and charitable towards the poor.
Why did Dr. James Barry live as a man?
All historical research and evidence point towards Dr. James Barry being born a woman. But though we can speculate, we will never be 100% sure why he did what he did. But, Dr. Barry, throughout his life, has identified himself as being a gentleman.
Today, we might call Barry a “transgender man” or someone who was a female at birth but identified as a man. When Barry lived, the gender definitions were quite straightforward.
But maybe, it is more straightforward than that. It was perhaps his passion for medicine that drove him, which makes this disguise purely professional. We are talking about a time when women were still prohibited from practicing medicine. Therefore, maybe, he was left with no choice but to dress up as a man to follow his passion.
Surgeon Michael du Preez and biographer Jeremy Dronfield have written Dr. James Barry’s biography, A Woman Ahead of Her Time. They write about a young, free-spirited girl who had told her brother, “Were I not a girl, I would be a soldier!”
How did Dr. James Barry avoid getting exposed for so long?
Half a century is a long time to keep up a deceit this big. Dr. James Barry, for some mysterious reason, always had acquaintances and friends in high places. He also got support from people in powerful positions. In fact, Charles Dickens wrote about this in his essay about Dr. Barry, “A Mystery Still.”
“His letters of introduction placed him at once in the best society of the colony.” “…his reputation was high, and he had brought with him his usual letters of introduction.”
Historians believe these influences might have helped Barry escape difficult situations on more than one occasion. According to records, Lord Buchan intervened when the university was not letting Barry sit for his degree examinations stating he was too young. He helped again when his first commanding officer thought young Dr. Barry was just a boy.
Dr. Barry also mostly lived an intensely private life with just a few friends. Over the years, he developed a difficult personality, maybe to keep people at a distance or hide his feminine traits.
The revelation after his death and how history ignores the real story.
Dr. James Barry died from dysentery in London in 1865. His request that his body not be examined after his death and to be buried in the clothes he dies in were forgotten or ignored. A charwoman who washed the body and examined it was in for a surprise. She reported Dr. James Barry to be a “perfect female.” The charwoman also discovered stretchmarks that indicated that the deceased had once given birth. She tried to blackmail the army with this revelation but failed. Major D. R. McKinnon, a friend and doctor who signed Barry’s death certificate, said it was none of his business whether he was male or female.
But the charwoman publicly and unfairly exposed Dr. Barry’s sex to the newspapers. The outrageous scandal shook Victorian society to the core. Some newspapers wrote that he was the illegitimate daughter of King George III, while many of his acquaintances came forward with their “I always suspected…” statements. But almost everyone recalled how strange he was.
Today, sadly, the scandal regarding his gender burns more brightly than his achievements and reform work as a doctor. That he was a “man” much ahead of his time gets buried under the scandal of his gender.
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