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:

Marie Curie Invent­ed Mobile X‑Ray Units to Help Save Wound­ed Sol­diers in World War I

Marie Curie Attend­ed a Secret, Under­ground “Fly­ing Uni­ver­si­ty” When Women Were Banned from Pol­ish Uni­ver­si­ties

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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