James Barry, unsung hero
Military surgeon James Barry was born around 1789. In 1809 he began his studies at Edinburgh Medical School, before travelling to London to complete his training as a surgeon. From there he enlisted in the British Army and traversed the globe, rising through the military ranks. By the end of his career he had reached the pinnacle of his profession as Inspector General in charge of military hospitals. He garnered much respect and criticism along the way – upsetting some with his emphasis not only on the treatment of wounded soldiers, but also native inhabitants, women and the poor. Among his medical accolades Barry performed one of the first successful Caesarean sections, whereby both mother and child survived.
Whilst his bedside manner may have been irreproachable, he is rumoured to have been argumentative, aggressive and secretive (it was reported that whilst in Crimea he argued with Florence Nightingale). Small in stature, clean-shaven, with a high-pitched voice, he challenged anyone who questioned his masculinity to a duel. As well as being reputed to be a womanizer, rumours also connected him romantically with Lord Somerset.
It wasn’t until 1865, after his death from dysentery, that Barry’s ‘true sex’ was discovered. The woman who tended the body after death pronounced Barry female (and to have at some point borne a child). The situation came to light after an exchange between the register office and Barry’s doctor, who had issued a death certificate on which Barry was identified as male. The doctor later stated that the deceased might have been inter-sex.
Barry’s early life is rife with myth and speculation with no contemporary records to corroborate various details. For instance the exact date of Barry’s birth is uncertain, as is his original identity (two possible names are Margaret Bulkley and Miranda Stuart). His nationality, sexuality and gender are disputed. With so much ambiguity, who can claim Barry as their hero? What is Barry’s legacy? There are two hypothesis.
Perhaps she is feminist hero? The earliest definitive record relates to his graduation from Edinburgh in 1812, at a time when women were forbidden to study to be doctors. Barry posed as a man to become the first female graduate in Britain, fooled the army and then kept her sex secret for half a century.
Or was Barry trans in an era and society that did not have any awareness of gender identity in this way? Perhaps he adopted a male identity because he identified as a man.
We have no way of knowing how Barry felt about his/her gender. We don’t know whether she inwardly identified as a woman, or he identified as a man. We do know that Barry spent his adult life fighting to be identified as male in a very male dominated world. Barry also explicitly wished to be buried in the clothes he died in, not to be embalmed or laid out and to have no post-mortem. In short, his wish was to die and be remembered as a man.
Words: Jess Rota
First published in We Are Family Magazine issue 6, summer 2014