The hidden LGBT+ history of the Edinburgh Medical School
Learn about two stories of LGBT+ history from the Edinburgh Medical School to celebrate Pride Month
On a societal level, LGBT+ history has tended to be overlooked. Not only was it illegal for publicly funded bodies (including schools) to teach or discuss it for over 28 years, but tales of queer history have often been deliberately hidden by the individuals involved out of shame, stigma, and self-preservation.
So, as Pride Month draws to a close, here are two stories of LGBT+ history from the University of Edinburgh Medical School.
Dr James Barry
Firstly, in 1809 a young man named James Barry came to Edinburgh to study Medicine. He graduated in 1812 and became a British Army medic. He was also the first surgeon to carry out a C-section where both mother and baby survived.
However, he had a reputation for being foul-tempered and having a high-pitched, squeaky voice; he was notorious for challenging people to duels, and during one duel he even shot someone in the chest.
After a distinguished career in the British Army, he died in 1865 in London and left instructions that his body should not be examined. But these instructions were ignored. And when he was examined after his maid laid his body out for his funeral, they found he was assigned female at birth. There were even indications on his body that he had given birth to a child whilst very young.
Was Barry trans? Or was he simply a woman crossdressing in an attempt to make it in a world where it would have been impossible to be a female doctor? And how did he disguise his biological sex for so long?
We may never know the answers to these questions – especially the first two. However, two factors appear to have helped Barry.
The first of these was professional respect. His colleagues were unwilling to challenge or doubt such an esteemed surgeon – not least one with a reputation for having a quick temper.
Take this quote from Florence Nightingale about Barry:
“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.”
The second factor is that many people who did have suspicions about his biological sex effectively filled in the gaps by assuming he was intersex (or hermaphrodite to use the language of the time).
Again, Barry’s personal doctor wrote after his death:
"Sir, 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. Yours faithfully, D.R. McKinnon"
The scandal was hushed up by the British Army and the records were sealed. Barry’s secret was concealed for an entire century. In the 1950s, a historian named Isabel Rae reopened the case. A retired South African doctor, Michael du Preez, then did some further digging to uncover Barry’s full life story.
He had been born Margaret Ann Bulkley and was originally from Dublin where he and his family had lived in abject poverty. His family had links to Venezuelan revolutionaries and it is believed he was supposed to practice medicine in a liberated Venezuela (as a woman) after graduating from Edinburgh; however, these revolutionaries were unsuccessful so Barry made the bold decision to join the British Army.
He and his family also had links to Lord Buchan, an influential figure in the British Army at the time. Barry even had a letter of recommendation from him that helped facilitate his entry to medical school. This also could help explain how he could hide his identity for so long.
But, Barry’s story tells us that even in the 1800s, the concept of gender was less fixed than we may have previously thought it was. Also, the tolerance and respect held by the people around him towards his identity should be noted too. For example, in the quotes from McKinnon and Nightingale, it is interesting to note the use of he/him pronouns even after they had discovered his biological sex. So, we clearly can learn lessons that are important to contemporary understandings of sex and gender.
In 1869, Sophia Jex-Blake applied to study Medicine at Edinburgh. Not a single medical school in Britain was admitting female medics at the time – including Edinburgh.
However, she managed to recruit six women to apply with her. The university relented and allowed them to matriculate – famously becoming known as the Edinburgh Seven. Her and one of the Seven, Edith Pechey, moved into lodgings at 15 Buccleuch Place which is eight doors down from the Centre’s building.
Her time at Edinburgh was marred with controversy and difficulty as male medical students (and many male members of staff too) deliberately tried to make life difficult for the female students. They were taught separately, graded more harshly, often had to arrange their own lectures, and were subject to verbal abuse. During an anatomy exam, male students threw mud and missiles at them – even deliberately setting a live sheep loose during one exam.
The Edinburgh Medical School then did not allow them to graduate and Jex-Blake moved to Switzerland to get her medical degree, then to Dublin to officially qualify as a doctor.
She returned to Edinburgh and set up medical school for women, before becoming the city’s only practicing female doctor. During this time, she met a woman named Margaret Todd and the two became “partners”.
Before she died in 1912, she instructed Margaret to burn all her private papers so it is not known if they were romantic or professional partners. But most historians believe they were romantically involved.
However, Margaret Todd is not mentioned on Jex-Blake’s page on the Edinburgh Medical School’s website. This is despite the husbands of three of the other Edinburgh Sevens being named in their biographies.
Be sure to think of these two tales the next time you are walking around the Old Medical School on Teviot Place or down Buccleuch Place. Consider the lengths Barry and Jex-Blake had to go to in order to keep these stories secret. But also, think about how much they achieved and contributed to the field of medicine – all whilst concealing their true selves, fighting against rampant discrimination, and breaking down barriers for others.