James Barry (surgeon)

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Dr James Barry
James Barry (surgeon)01.jpg
Dr James Barry (left) with John, a servant, and his dog Psyche, c. 1862, Jamaica
Born Margaret Ann Bulkley
c. 1789-1799
Died 25 July 1865, approximately aged 66-76
England, United Kingdom
Other names James Miranda Stuart Barry
Occupation surgeon
Known for medical reforms, disputed gender

James Miranda Stuart Barry (c. 1789-1799 – 25 July 1865, born Margaret Ann Bulkley), was an Irish military surgeon in the British Army. After graduation from the University of Edinburgh Medical School, Barry served in India and Cape Town, South Africa. By the end of his career, he had risen to the rank of Inspector General in charge of military hospitals. In his travels he not only improved conditions for wounded soldiers, but also the conditions of the native inhabitants. Among his accomplishments was the first caesarean section in Africa by a British surgeon in which both the mother and child survived the operation.[1]Dr James Barry should not be confused with Dr James Barry, lawyer.[2]

Although Barry lived his adult life as a man, he was assigned female at birth, named Margaret Ann Bulkley.[3] He chose to live as a man so that he might be accepted as a university student and able to pursue a career as a surgeon,[1] with his sex only being discovered by the public and his colleagues after his death. Barry was the first qualified female British doctor or surgeon known, anticipating Elizabeth Garrett Anderson by over 50 years.

Early life[edit]

Information about Barry's early life has been rife with myth and speculation, with no contemporary records known. The exact date of Barry's birth is uncertain, with sources putting the date at 1789,[4] 1792,[5][6] 1795,[7] or 1799.[8]

Evidence collected by Hercules Michael du Preez indicates that Barry was born in Cork in 1789 and was the second of three children born to Jeremiah and Mary-Ann Bulkley. At birth, Barry was given the name Margaret Ann.[4] The child's mother was the sister of James Barry, a celebrated Irish artist and professor of painting at London's Royal Academy. Her father, Jeremiah, had a shop on Merchant’s Quay which serviced the ships. However, family financial mismanagement left Mary-Ann and Margaret Bulkley without the support of either Jeremiah Bulkley (who spent time as an inmate of the Marshalsea prison in Dublin) or their son John (who was married).[4] Letters during this time of financial hardship refer to a conspiracy between Mary-Ann Bulkley and some of her brother's influential, liberal-minded friends (Francisco de Miranda, Edward Fryer, who became Barry's personal tutor, and Daniel Reardon, the family's solicitor) to get the teenage Margaret into medical school.[4] A financial record from the family solicitor indicates that Mary-Ann and Margaret Bulkley travelled to Edinburgh by sea at the end of November 1809.[4] A letter to the same solicitor, sent on 14 December, in which 'James Barry' asks for any letters for him to be forwarded to his mother, Mary-Ann (whom he refers to as his aunt), mentions that '...it was very usefull [sic] for Mrs. Bulkley (my aunt) to have a Gentleman to take care of her on Board Ship and to have one in a strange country...', apparently indicating that the younger traveller had assumed this male identity upon embarking on the voyage. Although the letter was signed by Barry, the solicitor wrote on the back of the envelope 'Miss Bulkley, 14 December'.[4]

Following his 1809 arrival in Edinburgh, Barry began studies at the University of Edinburgh Medical School as a 'literary and medical student'. He qualified with an MD in 1812,[9] then moved back to London. There he signed up for the Autumn Course 1812/1813 as a pupil of the United Hospitals of Guy’s and St Thomas'.[4] On 2 July 1813, Barry successfully took the examination for the Royal College of Surgeons of England, subsequently qualifying as a Regimental Assistant.[4]


Portrait of James Barry, painted circa 1813-1816

Barry was commissioned as a Hospital Assistant with the British Army on 6 July 1813, taking up posts in Chelsea and then the Royal Military Hospital in Plymouth, where he was promoted to Assistant Staff Surgeon.[4] He may have served in the Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815).[citation needed] After that he served in India and then in South Africa. He arrived in Cape Town between 1815 and 1817.

In a couple of weeks he became the Medical Inspector for the colony. During his stay, he arranged for a better water system for Cape Town and performed one of the first known successful Caesarean sections - the boy was christened James Barry Munnik. He also gained enemies by criticising local handling of medical matters. He was known for his outspoken views (on one occasion he fought a duel with pistols), and for his close relationship with the Governor, Lord Charles Somerset, which was widely rumored to be homosexual in nature. These rumours were addressed by recourse to a libel action.[10] He left Cape Town in 1828.

Barry's next postings included Mauritius in 1828, Trinidad and Tobago, and the island of Saint Helena. In Saint Helena he got into trouble for leaving for England unannounced. Later he served in Malta, Corfu, the Crimea, Jamaica, and in 1831 Canada.

By this time he had reached the rank of Inspector General, H.M. Army Hospitals. However, during his next posting in Saint Helena, he got into trouble with the internal politics of the island, was arrested and sent home, and demoted to Staff Surgeon. His next posting was the West Indies in 1838.

In the West Indies Barry concentrated on medicine, management and improving the conditions of the troops. He was promoted to Principal Medical Officer. In 1845, Barry contracted yellow fever and left for England for sick leave in October.

Barry was posted to Malta on 2 November 1846. Within a month of his arrival he took a seat in the local church that was reserved for the clergy and was severely reprimanded. During his stay he had to deal with a threat of a cholera epidemic, which eventually broke out in 1850. He left Malta for Corfu in 1851 with the rank of Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals. He left Corfu in 1857 for Canada as an Inspector-General of Hospitals. In that position, he fought for better food, sanitation and proper medical care for prisoners and lepers, as well as soldiers and their families.


Barry retired in 1864—reputedly against his wishes—and returned to England. He died from dysentery on 25 July 1865. Sophia Bishop, the charwoman who took care of the body, examined his anatomy and revealed Barry's secret after the funeral. The situation came to light after an exchange of letters between George Graham of the General Register Office, and Major D. R. McKinnon, Barry's doctor and the person who had issued the death certificate on which Barry was identified as male.[5]


It has been stated to me that Inspector-General Dr James Barry, who died at 14 Margaret Street on 25 July 1865, was after his death found to be female. As you furnished the Certificate as to the cause of his death, I take the liberty of asking you whether what I have heard is true, and whether you yourself ascertained that he was a woman and apparently had been a mother?

Perhaps you may decline answering these questions; but I ask them not for publication but for my own information.

Your faithful servant

George Graham

McKinnon's response was as follows:


I had been intimately acquainted with the doctor for good many years, both in London and the West Indies and I never had any suspicion that Dr Barry was a woman. I attended him during his last illness, (previously for bronchitis, and the affection for diarrhoea). On one occasion after Dr Barry’s death at the office of Sir Charles McGregor, there was the woman who performed the last offices for Dr Barry was waiting to speak to me. She wished to obtain some prerequisites of his employment, which the Lady who kept the lodging house in which Dr Barry died had refused to give her. Amongst other things she said that Dr Barry was a female and that I was a pretty doctor not to know this and she would not like to be attended by me. I informed her that it was none of my business whether Dr Barry was a male or a female, and that I thought that he might be neither, viz. an imperfectly developed man. She then said that she had examined the body, and was a perfect female and farther that there were marks of him having had a child when very young. I then enquired how have you formed that conclusion. The woman, pointing to the lower part of her stomach, said ‘from marks here. I am a maried [sic] woman and the mother of nine children and I ought to know.’

The woman seems to think that she had become acquainted with a great secret and wished to be paid for keeping it. I informed her that all Dr Barry’s relatives were dead, and that it was no secret of mine, and that my own impression was that Dr Barry was a Hermaphrodite. But whether Dr Barry was a male, female, or hermaphrodite I do not know, nor had I any purpose in making the discovery as I could positively swear to the identity of the body as being that of a person whom I had been acquainted with as Inspector-General of Hospitals for a period of years.

Yours faithfully,

D.R. McKinnon

Afterward many people claimed to have "known it all along". The British Army sealed all records for 100 years.[1] The historian Isobel Rae gained access to the army records in the 1950s, and concluded that Barry was the niece of James Barry the painter.[11] He was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery under the name James Barry and his full rank. His manservant John subsequently returned to Jamaica.


A. K. Kubba[5] has suggested that it might be more appropriate to say that Barry was hermaphrodite rather than female. This term and the later expression intersex might be considered as an alternative explanation for Barry's own self-determined gender. One biographer, Holmes, raises the possibility but prefers to acknowledge the uncertainty of not knowing, expressing surprise that this is a problem for so many people.[12] The postulation that James Barry was intersex has been criticised for both biological and social reasons. Kubba's conclusion has been referred to as being based on slim evidence[13] and in a review of Holmes' biography by Irvine Loudon,[14] the implication that Barry might have been hermaphrodite is firmly rejected. Socially the intersex view has been argued by some LGBT and feminist theorists to be an attempt to impose biologically male characteristics onto Barry as to undermine the concept that a biological woman could have achieved as much as Barry did, regardless of gender identity.[15][16] An alternative perspective to the biological one, stimulated by debate both in fiction[17] and biography,[12] is that not having a definitive sexual identity potentially offers a form of 'gender resistance' and that Barry's life testifies to this.[18]


Barry was apparently not always a pleasant fellow to be around. He could be tactless, impatient, argumentative and opinionated. He reputedly fought a couple of duels when someone commented on his voice, features, or professionalism. He was punished many times for insubordination and discourteous behaviour but often received lenient sentences. During the Crimean War (1854–1856), he got into an argument with Florence Nightingale.[8] After Barry's death Nightingale wrote that:

"I never had such a blackguard rating in all my life – I who have had more than any woman – than from this Barry sitting on his horse, while I was crossing the Hospital Square with only my cap on in the sun. He kept me standing in the midst of quite a crowd of soldiers, Commissariat, servants, camp followers, etc., etc., every one of whom behaved like a gentleman during the scolding I received while he behaved like a brute . . . After he was dead, I was told that (Barry) was a woman . . . I should say that (Barry) was the most hardened creature I ever met."[19]

He was noted to have had a good bedside manner and professional skill.[8] He tried to improve sanitary conditions wherever he went and improve the conditions and diet of the common soldier, by introducing the pear. He reacted indignantly to unnecessary suffering. His insistence on better conditions for poor and commoners annoyed his peers. He was a vegetarian and teetotaler and reputedly recommended wine baths for some patients. His manservant (named John) and his dogs were his constant companions.

In popular culture[edit]

The character of Barry has been played by Anna Massey in an episode of the BBC drama-documentary A Skirt Through History.[20]

His life is the subject of the historical novel James Miranda Barry (published in the USA as The Doctor) by Patricia Duncker.[17]

The Canadian aspect of Barry's career was dramatised in an episode of the series Heritage Television, produced by then-independent superchannel CHCH in Hamilton, and hosted by Canadian historian Pierre Berton.

A 2004 play, Whistling Psyche by Sebastian Barry, imagines a meeting between James Barry and Florence Nightingale.[21]

A song by contemporary folk duo Gilmore & Roberts, Doctor James,[22] retells selected events from the life story of Doctor James Barry. The song was released on the album The Innocent Left on Navigator Records, October 2012.

The town of Barrydale in the Klein Karoo region of South Africa was named after him.

See also[edit]

  • Enriqueta Favez, a contemporary biological female who became a physician and surgeon in guise of a man.


  1. ^ a b c Pain, Stephanie (6 March 2008). "The 'male' military surgeon who wasn't". NewScientist.com. Retrieved 16 March 2008. 
  2. ^ Barry, James. "A barrister's role in the plea decision: an analysis of drivers affecting advice in the crown court" (PDF). Queen Mary Research Online. Retrieved 22 July 2016. 
  3. ^ "Five British heroes overlooked by history". BBC News. 17 November 2009. Retrieved 5 May 2010. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i du Preez, Hercules Michael (January 2008). "Dr. James Barry:The early years revealed". South African Medical Journal. Health & Medical Publishing Group. 98 (1): 52–54.  Text. Pdf.
  5. ^ a b c Kubba, A. K (2001). "The Life, Work and Gender of Dr James Barry MD". Proceedings of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. 31 (4): 352–356. PMID 11833588.  Pdf.
  6. ^ Leitch, Robert (1 July 2001). "The Barry Room: The Tale Of A Pioneering Military Surgeon". usmedicine.com. Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 14 December 2007. 
  7. ^ "James Barry Biography". Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Retrieved 23 December 2007. 
  8. ^ a b c "Barry, James (c.1799–1865)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 
  9. ^ M.D available at the Edinburgh Research Archive.
  10. ^ Nic Fleming, "Revealed: Army surgeon actually a woman", The Telegraph, 5 Mar 2008. Retrieved 26 April 2016
  11. ^ Maguire, Stephen (28 September 2008). "She's a beauty... and just perfect to play the role of the most amazing MALE doc ever; EXCLUSIVE HEARTACHE BEHIND NATASCHA'S SMILE.". Sunday Mirror. Retrieved 28 April 2013. 
  12. ^ a b Holmes, Rachel (2003). Scanty particulars. London: Penguin Books. p. 323. ISBN 0-140-29085-0. 
  13. ^ Turner, Neil (12 September 2014). "James Barry". University of Edinburgh. believes on vanishingly slim evidence that she had an intersex condition. 
  14. ^ Loudon, Irvine (2002). "Scanty Particulars: The Strange Life and Astonishing Secret of Victorian Adventurer and Pioneer James Barry [Book Review]". BMJ. 324 (7349): 1341. doi:10.1136/bmj.324.7349.1341. PMC 1123295Freely accessible. 
  15. ^ Hacker, Carlotta (2001). The Indomitable Lady Doctors. Formac. 
  16. ^ "Dr. James Barry and the specter of trans and queer history.". The Journey Without a Map. 24 November 2015. Even A Gender Variance Who’s Who, which identifies itself as “the most comprehensive site devoted to trans history” doesn’t even bring up the idea that Barry was trans. Instead they consider several theories put forth in the 1970s that suggest Barry was intersex. Which has nothing to do with anything as far as I’m concerned since intersex does not equal gender identity, either assigned at birth or lived. 
  17. ^ a b Duncker, Patricia (1999). James Miranda Barry. London: Bloomsbury. 
  18. ^ Funke, Jana (2012). "Obscurity and Gender Resistance in Patricia Duncker's James Miranda Barry". European Journal of English Studies. 16: 215–226. doi:10.1080/13825577.2012.735410. PMC 4214389Freely accessible. PMID 25400502. 
  19. ^ Nightingale, Florence. Letter to Parthenope, Lady Verney (undated). London: Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine. 
  20. ^ "A Skirt Through History: An Experiment". BFI Film & TV Database. British Film Institute. Retrieved 19 June 2008. 
  21. ^ Lopaz, Andrea. Review of Whistling Psyche. CurtainUp, 2004.
  22. ^ "Gilmore & Roberts 'Doctor James'". 'The Innocent Left'. Navigator Records. Retrieved 22 Nov 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Beukes, Lauren: Maverick: Extraordinary Women from South Africa's Past, ISBN 1-77007-050-8
  • Brandon, Sydney: "Barry, James (c.1799–1865)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 accessed 4 Aug 2008; ODNB in notes.
  • du Preez, HM. "Dr James Barry (1789–1865): The Edinburgh Years". Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, 2012; 42:258–65.
  • du Preez, Michael; Dronfield, Jeremy (2016), Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time, London: Oneworld Publications, ISBN 978-1780748313 
  • Duncker, Patricia: James Miranda Barry (historical fiction), ISBN 0-330-37169-X
  • Duncker, Patricia: The Doctor, ISBN 0-06-019601-7
  • Holmes, Rachel: Scanty Particulars: The Scandalous Life and Astonishing Secret of James Barry, Queen Victoria's Most Eminent Military Doctor ISBN 0-375-50556-3 OCLC 49320500
  • Kronenfeld, Anne and Ivan: The Secret Life of Dr. James Miranda Barry (historical fiction) ISBN 1-59431-090-4
  • Ouellette, Sylvie: Le Secret du Docteur Barry (historical fiction) ISBN 978-2-89431-449-4 (Canada) and ISBN 978-2-812909-436 (France)
  • Racster, Olga: Dr. James Barry: Her secret story
  • Rae, Isobel: The Strange Story of Dr. James Barry: Army Surgeon, Inspector-General of Hospitals, Discovered on Death to be a Woman
  • Robb, Colin Johnston: "The Woman Who Won Fame in the British Army as a Man" (article published in The Northern Whig and Belfast Post, Friday, 16 November 1846)
  • Rose, June: The Perfect Gentleman ISBN 0-09-126840-0
  • Town, Florida Ann: With a Silent Companion (historical fiction for ages 12–16), ISBN 0-88995-211-6

External links[edit]

Irish Examiner Article