I first read about Dr. James Barry whilst studying with the Open University over ten years ago. I was fascinated by the story. Born around 1790 the doctor had an illustrious career, rising through the ranks of the British Army as a surgeon to become the Inspector General (equivalent of Brigadier) in charge of hospitals – the second highest office possible. When Dr. Barry died in 1865 the char woman who laid him out discovered that the doctor was, in fact, a woman.
The book Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time by Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield (2016) claims to have irrefutably discovered her true identity. Born Margaret Bulkley in Cork around 1790 her ambition was to become a soldier. Fiercely intelligent and ambitious she decided to dress as a man and change her identity to attend Edinburgh University, where she studied literature and medicine. She lied about her age so that her lack of facial hair and unbroken voice could be explained away. It has been suggested that influential friends of her father, who was in debtors prison, helped Margaret concoct and execute the deception. It’s hard to believe that the University could be duped, since when she graduated in 1812 she was claiming to be about 12 years old. In fact, the University did try to stop her taking the exam, but she’d made some powerful friends who intervened on her behalf, and she became a qualified MD in 1812.
Dr. Barry served abroad in the Cape Colony for a decade and rose to a position of great authority, all the while wearing stacked heels and using stuffing for the strategically placed bulge, cultivating the reputation of being a ladies man. The doctor was renowned for having a bad and sometimes violent temper, on one occasion causing a duel to be fought. The book suggests this was a device for appearing more masculine and to put off potential suitors. Ironically Dr. Barry was implicated in a scandal suggesting that Lord Somerset, the Cape Governor was ‘buggering him’, luckily the anonymous accusation remained unsubstantiated.
Dr. Barry also worked in the West Indies, Canada and the Mediterranean. Championing sanitary reform and performing the first successful Caesarian section in Africa. A contemporary of Florence Nightingale, it’s said that he scolded her for not wearing a hat in the sun! It wasn’t possible for a woman to matriculate from University in the UK before 1920, therefore making it impossible for a woman to become a qualified MD. She was a true pioneer and demonstrated women could become surgeons – a pretty brutal job in those days.
The story highlights the gender inequalities both historically and culturally. These inequalities are a social and political construct, limiting the aspirations of women by dictating what is and isn’t possible, or perhaps ‘respectable’ for a female. I am fascinated by the fluctuating societal norms the story emphasizes. Today, we could argue Dr. Barry was not simply a woman dressing up as a man to hoodwink the authorities, but perhaps someone who didn’t identify as female. Rachel Holmes suggests that Barry was intersex, citing the subject of her thesis at University on Femoral Hernias of the thigh, which can be descended testicles, and therefore had chosen to identify as male.
Written by Sarah Green (she/her) from Taunton, Somerset, U.K. This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.
- Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time review – an exquisite story of scandalous subterfuge. Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield
- Wendy Moore: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/nov/10/dr-james-barry-a-woman-ahead-of-her-time-review. Thu 10 Nov 2016 07.00 GMT
- Guardian article: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/sep/26/no-scrubs-how-women-had-to-fight-to-become-doctors
- Rachel Holmes, 2002, Scanty Particulars: The life of Dr James Barry
- The Secret Life of Dr James Barry: Victorian England’s Most Eminent Surgeon