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 his death.
Brilliant, bad-tempered eccentric
James Barry studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh from 1809 to 1812 and from there 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 his career as Inspector General of military hospitals.
Barry was considered a bad-tempered, squeaky-voiced eccentric. Often he was teased by his colleagues for his voice, and he challenged his tormentors to duels, shooting one man dead through the lung. (Teasing died down after this particular incident.)
Florence Nightingale hated Barry, writing after his 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.
Still, he 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.
His maid laid him 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 his army career, but details about his 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 he began his studies in Edinburgh, his ‘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. His family had revolutionary connections through his uncle, painter and professor James Barry, to General Francisco De Miranda, a Venezualian radical. When his uncle died, a plan was hatched that he 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.
He and his 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 his career through medical school and the army.) Margaret was already inhabiting his new disguise. When he matriculated his apparent youth only added to the perception of his precocious intelligence.
General de Miranda’s attempt to liberate Latin America failed, and Margaret’s dream of going to Venezeula was dashed. After graduating from the University of Edinburgh, he joined the army, a dangerous and seemingly odd decision, but one which he got away with till the very end.
How did Barry get away with it?
The question of how he 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, quite nicely summed up by this exchange between George Graham of the General Register Office, and D.R McKinnon, Barry's doctor, who had named Barry as male on the death certificate:
It has been stated to me that Inspector-General Dr James Barry, who died at 14 Margaret Street on 25 July 1865, was after his death found to be female. As you furnished the Certificate as to the cause of his death, I take the liberty of asking you whether what I have heard is true, and whether you yourself ascertained that he was a woman and apparently had been a mother? Perhaps you may decline answering these questions; but I ask them not for publication but for my own information.
Your faithful servant
I had been intimately acquainted with the doctor for good many years, both in London and the West Indies and I never had any suspicion that Dr Barry was a woman. I attended him during his last illness, (previously for bronchitis, and the affection for diarrhoea). On one occasion after Dr Barry’s death at the office of Sir Charles McGregor, there was the woman who performed the last offices for Dr Barry was waiting to speak to me. She wished to obtain some prerequisites of his employment, which the Lady who kept the lodging house in which Dr Barry died had refused to give her. Amongst other things she said that Dr Barry was a female and that I was a pretty doctor not to know this and she would not like to be attended by me. I informed her that it was none of my business whether Dr Barry was a male or a female, and that I thought that he might be neither, viz. an imperfectly developed man. She then said that she had examined the body, and was a perfect female and farther that there were marks of him having had a child when very young. I then enquired how have you formed that conclusion. The woman, pointing to the lower part of her stomach, said ‘from marks here. I am a maried [sic] woman and the mother of nine children and I ought to know.’
The woman seems to think that she had become acquainted with a great secret and wished to be paid for keeping it. I informed her that all Dr Barry’s relatives were dead, and that it was no secret of mine, and that my own impression was that Dr Barry was a Hermaphrodite. But whether Dr Barry was a male, female, or hermaphrodite I do not know, nor had I any purpose in making the discovery as I could positively swear to the identity of the body as being that of a person whom I had been acquainted with as Inspector-General of Hospitals for a period of years.
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 he indeed had a child, and at what age. To give Barry the full respect he is due, and to refer to him by the correct gender, it would be useful to know if he considered himself to be a man, or if he 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.