The Unusual Life Story of Dr. James Barry

Dr. James Barry had led a colourful life. A renowned military surgeon, he rose to become inspector general of hospitals – one of the highest army medical posts – and served throughout the British empire. Notoriously irascible, Barry fought a duel with a fellow officer, ticked off Florence Nightingale and survived several army inquiries into his conduct. He was a humane doctor, fervent public health reformer and famous for his peculiarities: a teetotaller and vegetarian, he travelled with a menagerie of small animals.

Yet all these eccentricities were as nothing compared with the revelations that emerged on Barry’s death. For the brilliant Dr Barry was, in fact, a woman. The charwoman who washed the body discovered “he” was “a perfect female” and furthermore surmised – from stretch marks on the abdomen – that she had once given birth. More than 50 years before women were allowed to practise medicine, Barry had hoodwinked Edinburgh University, the Royal College of Surgeons and the British Army to become the first female doctor in the UK. At a time when women were barred from most formal education and most professions, she had masqueraded as a man in a life-long deception of breathtaking proportions.

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The scandal that bewitched Victorian society spawned an army of commentators vying to determine who the real Dr Barry was and what led him/her to live a life of such exquisite subterfuge. Newspapers speculated that she was the illegitimate daughter of George III.

The true story is both more prosaic and infinitely more strange. In a comprehensive biography written by retired surgeon Michael du Preez, who has devoted a decade to an archival detective trail, and together with biographer and novelist Jeremy Dronfield, you’ll see a scintillating portrait of Barry’s life.

A bright and spirited girl, 18-year-old Margaret chastised her spendthrift brother with the words: “Were I not a girl, I would be a soldier!” The following year she set out on the path towards that unlikely ambition when she exchanged her skirts for breeches and enrolled as a medical student at Edinburgh, shrewdly reducing her age to explain her hairless chin and petite frame. Helped by a small fortune from her late uncle, the artist James Barry, she not only adopted his name and presented herself as his nephew but acquired some of his influential patrons.

He served 12 years in the Cape colony – eventually taking charge of all military medical matters there – before travelling to the West Indies, Mediterranean and Canada.

He was a skilled surgeon, who performed one of the first successful caesareans, and a committed sanitary reformer. He lambasted the authorities for mismanagement of barracks, prisons and asylums, while treating rich and poor, colonists and slaves alike.

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Dr. Barry’s Death

On Barry’s death, acquaintances queued up to assert they had always guessed he was a woman, while some even claimed to have seen the proof. Few truly suspected his identity in his lifetime, though it seems likely some close allies shared his secret. In her 2002 biography, Rachel Holmes made a plausible case for Margaret being intersex: born with male and female characteristics, she was brought up female then opted to live as a man. Barry’s Edinburgh thesis on femoral hernias (hernias of the thigh) – which can turn out to be descended testicles – gives weight to this idea. Du Preez and Dronfield dismiss this notion and argue Barry’s decision to live as a man was “motivated more by ambition than identity”.

The doctor who signed Barry’s death certificate said it was “none of my business” whether Barry was male or female – and perhaps he was right. The truth remains buried in a grave in Kensal Green cemetery, north-west London. All that can be said with certainty is that the enigma surrounding Barry is set to continue.

Book: Dr James Barry by Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield available here

H/T TheGuardian

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