The story of James Barry is one of the most remarkable in the University of Edinburgh's history. Born Margaret Ann Bulkley, Barry's identity as a woman was a secret until after death.
An extraordinary life
James Barry studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh from 1809 to 1812. After only two years of study, and probably at no more than 17 years of age, Barry graduated.
Initially, they worked at St Thomas' Hospital, London, before joining the army as a medical officer. Barry was sent to South Africa a year later and it was here that Barry carried out the first successful Caesarean section in 1826.
From there Barry went on to have a distinguished career as an army surgeon in Cape Town in South Africa, the Island of St Helena and Trinidad and Tobago, ending their career in Canada as Inspector General of military hospitals.
Barry was considered a bad-tempered, squeaky-voiced eccentric, often teased by colleagues for their voice. It is said that Barry challenged tormentors to duels, shooting one man dead through the lung. (Teasing died down after this particular incident.)
Florence Nightingale hated Barry, writing after their death:
I never had such a blackguard rating in all my life – I who have had more than any woman – than from this Barry sitting on his horse, while I was crossing the Hospital Square with only my cap on in the sun. He kept me standing in the midst of quite a crowd of soldiers, Commissariat, servants, camp followers, etc., etc., every one of whom behaved like a gentleman during the scolding I received while he behaved like a brute . . . After he was dead, I was told that (Barry) was a woman . . . I should say that (Barry) was the most hardened creature I ever met.
Nevertheless, Barry was considered an excellent doctor with a sympathetic beside manner regardless of background and an enduring focus on improving sanitation.
In 1865, returning to Britain with a bad case of dysentery, Barry died.
Barry's maid laid them out for the funeral, and held on to her sensational discovery until afterwards: Barry was a woman.
Speculation and scandal began to spread. Some army personnel claimed they’d known all along, while others put forward theories that Barry was a hermaphrodite or a male who had never developed past puberty. The army shut down all access to his papers for a good hundred years, and the case wasn’t opened again until the 1950s, by historian Isobel Rae. This uncovered Barry's army career, but details about their family life were revealed by some clever digging by retired Cape Town doctor Michael du Preez.
Du Preez traced Barry’s family history by examining Barry's companion when they began their studies in Edinburgh, their ‘aunt’ Mary Ann Bulkley, finding that she was the sister of Irish artist and professor James Barry.
Who was James Barry?
James Barry started out life as Margaret Ann Bulkley in an impoverished family in Ireland. Barry's family had revolutionary connections through their uncle, painter and professor James Barry, and also to General Francisco De Miranda, a Venezualian radical.
When Barry's uncle died, a plan was hatched that they would study medicine in Edinburgh disguised as a man, then, once General Francisco De Miranda had liberated and taken charge of Venezuala, practice medicine in Venezuala as a woman.
Barry and their mother, Mary Ann Bulkley, travelled by boat from London to Leith, carrying a letter of recommendation from their friend Lord Buchan. This connection possibly facilitated Barry's career through medical school and the army. Margaret was already inhabiting the new disguise. When they matriculated their apparent youth only added to the perception of precocious intelligence.
General de Miranda’s attempt to liberate Latin America failed, and Barry's dream of going to Venezeula was dashed. After graduating from the University of Edinburgh, they joined the army, a dangerous and seemingly odd decision, but one which they got away with till the very end.
How did Barry get away with it?
The question of how Barry managed as a woman in an army environment can partly be explained by the support of Lord Buchan, but a great deal has also to do with attitudes at the time.
It seems a mixture of professional respect and blind denial protected Barry's reputation in light of the scandal, and there is still much we don't know, such as if they had a child, and at what age. To give Barry the full respect they are due, and to refer to them by the correct gender, it would be useful to know if they considered themselves to be a man, or if they identified as a woman all along over decades of pretending.
Was Barry's identity ever discovered? Who did Barry confide in? We can only speculate to fill in the gaps in Barry's story.