Hidden historical heroines (#30: “James Barry”)

Dr James BarryJames Miranda Barry (c. 1789-1799 – 25 July 1865) – aka Margaret Ann Bulkley – was a military surgeon in the British Army, the first British woman to become a qualified doctor. Margaret Ann achieved this unprecedented honour by concealing her true gender her entire adult life. Although almost everything about “James’” childhood and subsequent life is speculation and conjecture, I will tell the story in its most accepted form.

James was born as the daughter of Jeremiah and Mary-Ann Bulkley, who was the sister of James Barry, a celebrated Irish artist and Professor of painting at London’s Royal Academy.  Mary-Ann and her financially useless teenaged daughter were left destitute when Jeremiah Bulkley was imprisoned. By all accounts, the young Margaret was highly intelligent with a burgeoning interest in medicine and the body. If she had been born male, she would have no problem passing the tests to get into medical school, enabling her to have a vocation which would suit her talents and to support her mother.

Mary-Ann Bulkley went to her brother for help, and thus was birthed a conspiracy by his influential, liberal friends (such as Francisco de Miranda, the famous Venezuelan revolutionary and David Stuart Erskine, Earl of Buchan, an avid supporter of the education of women) to get Margaret into medical school. Mary-Ann and Margaret boarded a ship from Ireland to Edinburgh in November 1809, but disembarked as Mary-Ann and her ‘nephew’, James Barry – who was promptly accepted into the University of Edinburgh.

As everyone had hoped, ‘James Barry’ proved an excellent and prodigiously talented student, graduating with a Medical Doctorate in 1812 before travelling to London to qualify under the Royal College of Surgeons of England the following year. James was commissioned into the British Army, where it is likely he served in the Battle of Waterloo (in 1815) before receiving postings around the Empire, journeying to South Africa to become Medical Inspector for the colony at Cape Town. During his tenure he established better water systems and sanitation, as well as performing the first known successful Caesarean section on the African continent.

Whilst in Cape Town, James befriended its governor, Lord Charles Somerset. Somerset was a friend of the Earl of Buchan, so it is possible that he knew James Barry’s true identity – and gender! Certainly rumours began to swirl about the odd and unnatural relationship between the Lord and the surgeon, to the extent that the powers that be in London sent a royal commission out to South Africa to investigate the supposed homosexual activities. The commission didn’t report any findings, but the scandal forced Somerset to return to England.

James Barry and his manservant, John

It wasn’t just the closeness with ‘other men’ that was raising British eyebrows about Dr Barry. He was a complete eccentric from the word go. He had a black poodle called Psyche and also demanded that there be a goat on hand wherever he was so he could have fresh milk at any time. Speaking of drinking, James was a vegetarian and a teetotaller – but recommended that people bathe in wine rather than water! He was particularly reliant on one manservant his entire life – a Jamaican man called John, who in turn seemed oddly devoted to his master (and surely must have known his secret).

James continued his career around the Empire, instigating much the same hygiene reforms as he had championed in South Africa, making enemies everywhere he went with his constant criticism. Apparently, he came to loggerheads with Florence Nightingale – the Lady of the Lamp herself – when he visited Crimea. James berated the nurse for the appallingly high death rates in her hospital, probably kickstarting Florence’s own famous medical hygiene reforms. Nevertheless, she remembered him as a ‘brute’ and a ‘blackguard’ and this hard opinion was not swayed upon eventually learning Dr Barry had been a woman all along.

Florence Nightingale wasn’t the only person with reason to dislike Dr James Barry. He was a fiery red-head, a prickly, angry man – quick to come to blows, certainly when it was over a (perceived or blatant) slight about his height (only five foot – he wore inserts in his shoes to gain an extra few inches) or his high-pitched voice or effeminate frame (he used folded towelling as a form of ‘shoulder-pads’ to bulk himself out); he even fought duels over this sort of thing! He was constantly being promoted, court-martialled for fighting or insubordination, and demoted again. His reputation for such behaviour overshadowed his wonderful medical achievements to the extent that – on his (probably forced) retirement in 1864 – he did not receive the customary knighthood that a person of such service would have been given.

Rather ironically, given he had spent his life campaigning against the poor hygiene that caused such diseases, James died of dysentery in London, in 1865.  Tellingly, James had left clear and strict instruction that his body was not to be embalmed or ‘laid out’ in any way, but to be buried in whatever clothes he had died in. This was, for whatever reason, completely disregarded. A char woman, Sophia Bishop, was summoned to wash and lay out the body in preparation for burial, as was proper.

James Barry in uniform

Of course, once the over-sized clothes and towel-padding was stripped away, there was no hiding Dr Barry’s true gender. Sophia Bishop had the grace to keep her mouth closed until after the funeral, before going to Barry’s doctor and long-time friend, Major D. R. McKinnon with her ‘findings’. She insisted that not only had the good doctor been obviously a woman, but a woman with clear signs of having given birth! There is evidence that James went AWOL around 1819 – could this be when ‘he’ gave birth to the child of Lord Somerset?

Credit to him, Major McKinnon responded that “it was none of [his] business whether Dr Barry was a male or a female”, whilst admitting that it had privately been thought that he may have been a hermaphrodite. Either way, Margaret Ann is buried under her pseudonym in Kensal Green Cemetery in London; her gravestone proudly records her rank: “Inspector-General of Military Hospitals”.

The – rather embarrassed – British Army sealed all records pertaining to Dr James Barry for a hundred years. They must have been wondering how many other women had snuck into ‘male’ roles over the centuries, if Margaret Ann Bulkley could have fooled so many people around the world for 46 years.

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