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.