James Barry

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In 1865 a charwoman laid out the body of her patient Dr James Barry, and discovered that he was in fact a woman. She was even more taken aback  by the fact that this body had stretch marks on the stomach, proving that Barry had birthed a child. This charwoman, who also worked as a nurse, was highly underpaid and wanted to gain some money from this discovery. James Barry´s physician, who claimed to not know or care  whether he was a male or female, did not feel like paying the nurse and thus the story became public. However, nowadays not many people have heard about this James Barry, and even less people know his story. So who was James Barry and how was his story buried for so long?

James Barry appeared out of thin air at the age of nineteen at the same time that Margeret Ann Bulkley, daughter of Mary-Ann and Jeremiah, disappeared. The Bulkely family  had financial troubles and the father even went to jail. The mother and her daughter went to James Barry, Mary-Ann’s brother and a famous painter. This painter had some influential and liberal-minded friends who came up with a scheme to get Margeret into medical school. When the painter James Barry passed away in 1806, the name was up for grabs.  

And thus, Margeret Bulkley became James Barry, cousin of Mary-Ann and together they took sail to Edinburgh, where they arrived in 1809. Even though James was about twenty years old, due to his unbroken voice, short stature and smooth skin, people suspected he was not older than twelve. This even led to him not being allowed to take his exams, were it not for his influential friends at the university. Barry was forced to lie about his age and he started to wear oversized jackets and shoes with high platforms.

After finishing medical school, James joined the army. “Were I not a girl, I would be a soldier.”, he had once exclaimed, and a soldier he became. James Barry travelled the world and everywhere he arrived he brought change for the better. Sanitation and water systems, as well as slaves’ and prisoners’ conditions were improved. He even performed the first ever C-section in Africa in which both the mother and child lived, the thing he is probably most known for.

Despite his many accomplishments, James Barry also had a reputation for being short-tempered and getting into arguments with powerful men. He even argued with Florence Nightingale, who described Barry as “the most hardened creature” she had ever met. He threw medicine bottles at walls and he got into a pistol duel not only once, but twice. Lucky for James, his friend was there, Lieutenant Somerset, who also was the Governor of Cape Town. James Barry had saved his daughter’s life, and they were close ever since. So close, that people assumed they may have had a relationship. Both of them underwent trial and investigation, because at that time homosexuality was strictly forbidden. This showed how eager James was to keep his secret, because they could have prevented this if he had revealed his identity.

After the death of Somerset, whom James had treated until he passed away, he went on to travel around the globe, until he was too ill to do so. On his deathbed he expressed his wishes to be wrapped in his bed sheets without further inspection. Despite his wishes, his anatomy was discovered by the nurse, but the army sealed the records of James Barry for almost a century. Even though speculation continued, no further investigation was conducted. Later a letter was found that was signed by James Barry, but the solicitor had put Margeret Bulkley on the envelope, which proved that they had been the same person. The child, called Juliana, was probably born when Margeret was rather young, and was thus raised by James’s  mother as the third child in the family.

Not much is known about how James Barry viewed himself, so whether he identified himself as male or whether he merely used this as a way to make a living for himself as a surgeon is not known. Either way, he was a total badass and was the first female-born doctor of the UK, fifty years before women were allowed to practice medicine.