The Strange Story of Dr. James Barry, the Pioneering 19th Century British Doctor Who Was a Woman in Disguise

The work of many recent historians has brought more balance to the field, but even within heavily masculinist, Eurocentric histories, we find nonwhite people who slipped past racial gatekeepers to leave their mark, and women who made it past the gender police—sometimes under the guise of male pen names, and sometimes in disguise, as in the case of Dr. James Barry, who, upon his death in 1865, turned out to be “a perfect female,” as the surprised woman who washed the body discovered.

What makes Dr. Barry—born in Ireland as Margaret Bulkley, niece of the painter James Barry—such a noteworthy person besides passing for male in the company of people who did not tolerate gender fluidity? As the Irish Times writes in a review of a new biography, “her life as James Barry was a succession of audacious firsts—the first woman to become a doctor; the first to perform a successful caesarean delivery; a pioneer in hospital reform and hygiene; and the first woman to rise to the rank of general in the British Army (Barry’s commission, signed by Queen Victoria, still exists).”

When Barry’s sex was discovered, it caused a sensation, inspiring everyone from muckraking anonymous journalists to Charles Dickens to weigh in on the case. The tale “was explored in novels,” notes The Guardian, “and even a play,” but the “true story is both more prosaic and infinitely more strange.” The video at the top of the post walks us through Barry’s career serving the Empire in South Africa, where she treated soldiers, lepers, and ailing mothers. Margaret’s story as Dr. Barry begins in Cork when, longing for adventure at 18, she first decided to take on the persona of “a hot-tempered ladies’ man,” Atlas Obscura writes, “donning three-inch heeled shoes, a plumed hat, and sword.” When her wealthy uncle passed away and left the family his fortune, she also took his name.

Three years later in 1809, with the encouragement of her mentor and guardian, Venezuelan general Francisco Miranda, “she decided to embody a smooth-faced young man in order to attend the men’s-only University of Edinburgh and practice medicine—a guise that would last for 56 years.” Margaret’s early years were marked by hardship and tragedy. In her teens she had been raped by a family member and had born a child. When she became James Barry, a physician attending to pregnant women, she “had a secret advantage,” her biographers Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield write. “There was not another practicing physician in the world who knew from personal experience what it was like to bear a child.”

But of course, she did not need to experience leprosy or gunshot wounds to treat the many hundreds of patients in her care. Her sex was incidental to her skill as a physician. Margaret Bulkley’s transformation may be “one of the longest deceptions of gender identity ever recorded,” writes du Preez. Barry “is remembered for this sensational fact rather than for the real contributions that she made to improve the health and the lot of the British soldier as well as civilians.” The doctor’s wild personal story weaves through the lives of commoners and aristocrats, soldiers and revolutionaries, duels and illicit love affairs, and is surely worthy of an HBO miniseries. Her medical accomplishments are worthy of public memorialization, Joanna Smith argues at CBC News, along with a host of other accomplished women who changed the world, even as their legacies were elbowed aside to make even more room for famous men.

via The Guardian

Related Content:

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Photos of 19th-Century Black Women Activists Digitized and Put Online by The Library of Congress

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (7)
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  • David walmsley says:

    Para 4 line 7

    I think you’ll find it’s “borne a child”.

  • Moira Taylor says:

    No, I think you will find that the author of this article has used the correct expression.If the tense used had been different ie ” …another practising physician who had borne a child” then you would have been correct. But you are not. Meanwhile; what a fascinating article!

  • Virginia Levin says:

    Truly a tale for a movie or TV. Your video is great fodder for promoting either. Well done and liked the bit of humor. Do ghosts believe in humans? 🤔. 😃

  • Daragh Martin says:

    Surely Irish, not British?

  • Steve King says:

    Sorry, Moira – I’m with David. ‘Borne’ is the past participle of ‘to bear’ (meaning ‘to carry’) used in passive forms and to construct perfect tenses. ‘To have borne a child’ is the Perfect Infinitive. The mistaken use of ‘born’ probably derived from the context of childbirth.

  • AM says:

    It’s important to recognize women in history, but it’s also important that we don’t accidentally erase the history of a trans-gendered person in doing so. Do we know that James Barry identified as a woman and was doing this only to access a profession? I ask this because I recently listened to an episode of Radiolab that was about “the first female gondolier”, Alex Hai. It made a sensation at the time it happened (around 2007 I think), but really Alex Hai was a trans man, and didn’t want any of the attention he received for being the first female gondolier. The James Barry case is a fascinating first, either way they identified.

  • m says:

    if somebody lived as a man for the entirety of their adult life, it seems apparent to use the pronouns they used and use the name they actually went by. it’s even worse considering the guardian article linked doesn’t make this mistake, so it can only be assumed to be a conscious choice.

    there’s no evidence he ever lived or identified as a woman at all after first taking his name, and to revert back to a name and a pronoun that were left behind is stripping dr barry of his agency.

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