Irish History: Volume IV
Dr. James Barry
In 1809, a short, slight man named James Barry boarded a boat in his hometown of Cork and set sail to Edinburgh where he planned on enrolling in medical college. Barry’s previously affluent family had fallen on hard times—his father had been let go from his position due to rampant anti-Catholic sentiments and eventually landed in a debtor’s prison. At nineteen, Barry had been well-educated by his tutors with the intention of becoming a tutor himself—but with no work experience and a disgraced family name, there was no work to be had.
Barry’s height, soft voice, and delicate features (hard to see in the not particularly skilled portrait that’s our only image of Barry from the time period, featured here) led many to believe that Barry was lying about his age once he reached Edinburgh. While the faculty there had let Barry in to study, they were reluctant to let him take his final exams to become a doctor. Luckily, a friend of the family, the Earl of Buchan, vouched for the young man, and in 1913 Barry went to London (where his family now lived) to pass his exams and become Dr. James Barry at the age of 22.
And it’s a good thing he did: Dr. James Barry’s fifty-plus year long career as a military doctor proved to be an illustrious one. He entered the service as an officer and quickly rose in the ranks to eventually become Inspector General in charge of all military hospitals—a role equivalent to Brigadier General. While his personality left much to be desired—there’s the complaints about him Florence Nightingale made in her diary (she thought him “a brute,”) as well as his court-martials and duels—Barry was a surgeon of unprecedented skill. Most notably, while stationed in Cape Town, South Africa in 1820s, he performed the first successful caesarian section where the mother and child both survived in modern history. His legacy also includes his tireless efforts in sanitation reform, as well as better medical practices and care for soldiers, military families, prisoners, lepers, and all other underserved communities before his death in 1859. Many are still benefitting because of his efforts till this day.
And that would be the end of Dr. James Barry’s story, if it wasn’t for a charwoman who didn’t follow instructions. Barry left some specific last wishes: to be buried in the clothes he died in, with his body unwashed. But when the woman tasked with laying out the dead reached Barry, she stripped the body to prepare him for burial and found something shocking: Dr. James Barry not only had female anatomy, but stretch marks that implied she had once carried a child.
While Barry’s colleagues and friends were perfectly happy to keep this fact to themselves, (Barry’s doctor, Major D.R. McKinnon, said in a letter that it was “none of [his] business” if Barry was actually female,) the revelation was leaked to the press and became a sensation. Many people claimed to have known the whole time, but it’s equally possible no one did: when Barry entered the military in his twenties, he entered as an officer, which requires no medical exam. Of course, we have accounts of Barry’s effeminate nature, but that brash personality seemed to have swayed a lot of people away from the truth.
However, the entire story above does stand as truth except for one thing: Barry’s name. Barry was actually born Margaret Ann Bulkley and only became James Barry when a number of liberal-minded family friends and mentors (including the Earl of Buchan, from earlier!) decided Margaret’s intelligence would be wasted as only a wife and hatched a plan that fooled the world for 56 years. Dr. James Barry remains one of the most accomplished humanitarians and surgeons of the 1800s, no matter their gender—we can just add the first female doctor in the UK and Ireland to their long list of accolades!
This post is part of a series. Read more about Ireland's history by reading about ancient Irish Yule traditions here, here, and here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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