Written by Richard Darch, join the conversation here
Irish born military officer and doctor, driving force for sanitation, mental health care and living conditions for enslaved peoples in the British held South African colony. Barry performed the first recorded caesarean section in Africa, unusually for the time both mother and baby survived. Following his death, as his body was being prepared, the charwoman made a surprising discovery; Dr James Barry was a woman.
Early Life and Education
As you might expect from someone who had committed to a life of concealment and disguise there are very few verifiable specifics on Barry’s early life. We know he was born Margaret Buckley, probably in Cork (Ireland) around 1788. She and her brother James were raised in a family home where their father, Jeremiah, maintained good work running a docks weigh station. It is likely they lived comfortably as both of the children were literate. In Ireland at the time it was unusual for a girl from a working class household to be educated. Due to rising hostilities towards Catholics in Ireland Jeremiah was dismissed, throwing the family into a financial crisis. As being poor has always been the highest of possible crimes Jeremiah was sent to prison for failure to pay debts.
Times were hard and so Margaret did what all upstanding Catholic girls would do in these circumstances; she went to sea in drag. She and her mother Mary-Ann boarded a ship for Scotland. The name Margaret Buckley is never used again. Upon arriving in Scotland she had adopted the name James Barry, possibly as an homage to her now dead brother. She is presented as Mary-Ann’s nephew and enrolled at Edinburgh Medical School. It should be noted that this was one of Europe’s premier medical schools at the time, it is unlikely that Barry would have been admitted without support from person or persons of influence. That support would have been provided at great risk and it’s clear that the Barry family didn’t have the wealth to secure the support through bribes.
As he approached the end of his education at medical school the Chair of the school attempted to block Barry undertaking his final exams, citing the soft skin, unbroken voice and short stature as evidence that he had not yet undergone puberty. At this point Lord David Erskine the Earl of Buchan intervened and Barry was permitted to undertake the final exams. Interestingly prior to this I can find no direct link placing Barry and Erskine in each others company however Erskine was close friends with Barry’s childhood tutor Dr Fryer.
Following completion of his medical training Barry took a post at St Guy’s amd St Thomas Hospital in London where he completed his training as a surgeon in 1813. He then joined the British Army as a Commissioned Officer; officers being exempt from routine medical examinations
An Officer and a Gentleman
Following a number of minor postings in the UK Barry was stationed in South Africa as a Lieutenant. Shortly after his introduction to Lord Charles Somerset, the Governor of Cape Town he was called to treat the Governors daughter, who made a near miraculous recovery under the care of Dr Barry. This cemented Barry and Somersets relationship and they were rarely found apart from each others company. With the support of Somerset Barry soon became the Colonial Medical Inspector; A prestigious post given his age and experience. Whilst I say this was with Somersets support it is worth mentioning that the promotion could not have been better deserved. Barry was in open opposition to the numerous and varied “Quack Doctors” and natural apothecaries operating within Cape Town; many of whom undertook practices that even by the standards of the time were considered to be tragically archaic and universally fatal. There was also a reliance on highly toxic “medicines”.
Barry had great success in removing these individuals from practice and setting up review panels to ensure practice in Cape Town conformed to the best practices taught in the empire. This resulted in a certain amount of discontent from the entrenched “medical” community, in the colony and soon Somerset and Barry were brought before a magistrate following anonymous allegation of “buggery” which was, by the measure of the time considered a crime. Whilst homosexuality was by no means uncommon, particularly in British aristocracy, and royalty for that matter., the crime appeared more often than not to be about the indiscretion more than the act. One can only imagine though how confused any witnesses to this act would have been if they had only looked a little closer. The scandal was only lessened by the fact that Somerset was a widower and not presently married. Correspondence and memoirs uncovered decades after Barry’s death make it clear there was a sexual component to their relationship.
Barry disappeared from public view for some months. It is alleged he spent some time in the British colony at Mauritius however does not appear to have been practising as a doctor there. Barry soon returned to Cape Town, by which time Somerset had remarried and the scandal had dissipated. He quickly got back to work; Improving access to clean water and better nutrition for slaves, prisoners and the mentally ill. Barry also set up a sanctuary for those afflicted by leprosy, the only such sanctuary in Africa at the time. He also gained a certain about of fame at this time for performing the only known Caesarian successfully performed in Africa in which both mother and child survived. This would have been a remarkable feat even in England at the time.
Ruffling some Feathers
The infrastructure introduced by, and the practices of Dr Barry were advanced even by wealthy European standards of the time and afforded Cape Town quite a high status amongst the British Colonies. He took a number of promotions and postings over the following years however I feel his inter-personal and judicial interactions tell a better story. Barry challenged several people to duels, mostly for mocking his short stature and high voice. There is only evidence he actually fought one duel which he won. Following a disagreement with a fellow surgeon he was arrested and underwent court martial for “behaviour unbecoming an officer and a gentleman”. After investigation into his actions he was honourably acquitted, proving in court that he was indeed a gentleman.
Barry further antagonised his superiors by going absent without leave from his post as Surgeon to the Forces, when he returned to England to care for Lord Somerset who had fallen ill. Barry remained in England until Somerset’s death eighteen months later. The fallout from this appears to have been little more than a written reprimand.
He received a further reprimand and was forced to make a formal apology, however, when posted to Malta he took a seat normally reserved for the clergy; a social faux pas akin to urinating in the font. This is worthy of a moment of pause. That we know of Barry had taken place in one dual which would have killed a fellow officer had the peak of his cap not slowed the bullet, it is highly likely he killed another officer in a duel with a bullet through the lung. He is reported to have scuffled, beaten and threatened his way around the world, he leaves work for two years without permission however at this point the most trouble Dr James Barry had been in was for sitting down. Victorian priorities are awesome.
Later, in the role of Deputy Inspector General of Hospitals(a high and prestigious rank), Barry visited the British forces in the Crimea. Here he promptly had an argument with Florence Nightingale, in a letter written by Nightingale some time after Barry’s death, the lady with the lamp states
“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.”
Doctor James Barry, by then Inspector General of Hospitals, was forced under protest, to retire in 1859 due to worsening health and old age. He retired to London where in 1865, he contracted dysentery and died. He left standing instructions that, in the event of his death, his body should not be examined he should be wrapped in the bedsheets and buried. The doctor who certified the death later received a fair bit of grief for determining his patients life was extinct without examining him closely enough to recognise his gender. He dismissed this criticism with, “Barry was clearly a hermaphrodite” which was disproven quickly as the maid, who was looking to redress her back pay by removing any valuable objects from Barry, reported that Barry had the perfect form a of woman, complete and normal.
Dr James Barry is buried in Kensal Green (London) under the name he had used all of his adult life.
I have not gone into much detail of the radical changes Barry made in every posting; massive changes to sanitation, nutrition, sleeping accommodation, access to clean water and mental health care. He was crucial in battling a number of Cholera epidemics, and ensured improvements in living conditions for the poorest and most vulnerable in the British Empire. He was a highly skilled surgeon with insight far ahead of his time.
I have been flippant with my references to cross-dressing. This is by no means meant to appear disrespectful to people who identify with a gender other than their biological or birth identified gender. I have merely used to to emphasise I do not believe that Dr James Barry was a transgender man. Which is almost a shame given I think his life would serve as a beacon for transgender rights.
Having read through dozens of letters, notes and journal entries, as well as posthumous statements made by associates, I am entirely unconvinced that Dr James Barry identified as male. There is significant evidence that in private, particularly with Lords Somerset and Erskine he adopted a more socially female appearance. Spending long summers at the Buchan estate(residence of Lord Erskine) it was occasionally noted that a lady in lavish dresses was present, who is later believed to have been Dr Barry. I won’t comment on the sexual activities alleged between Barry and Somerset as there is no link as far as I am aware between gender identity and sexuality.
I may well be wrong and perhaps Barry was a transgender male who lived in a society that had no idea or allowance for the concept. I do however find it interesting that Florence Nightingale following discovery of Barry’s birth gender still attached the male pronoun in referring to him in her correspondence. I’d like to think this is a common enough concept today however at the time it was unlikely to be a thought that occurred so naturally.
Analysis: Gender Equality
If you are looking however for a feminist icon I would argue that Dr James Barry is one of the best you can find. She was no conformist, she worked the system, achieved greater things than most men of the age and made a mockery of the patriarchy merely by being excellent. I doubt he would have thought his gender would have been kept a secret after his death, given his corpse is described as “perfectly female in form”. I do take a considerable amount of sadness from this tale however as the achievements of his life would and should have been celebrated even to this day. I suspect largely due to the fact he was a woman these great accomplishments and the person responsible for them receded into near complete obscurity.
A huge amount of posthumous material exists pretending to add context to Barry’s life that are frankly used to discredit him. An example of this is the birth of her brother when she was sixteen years old. Reports suggest that Barry was sexually assaulted, concealed the pregnancy and upon the birth the child was presented as her brother, in an attempt to spare the family disgrace. This is used to imply that Barry was a deranged and traumatised woman and is utterly unfounded with the only possible evidence being that on her old cooling corpse were found stretch marks. Significantly more evidence exists of a less than discrete affair between Mary-Ann and a local priest whilst Jeremiah was in prison.
Given the remaining lack of awareness of this incredible character I would argue this suggests that whilst we have come some way as a society regarding gender equality we probably haven’t progressed nearly as far as we think.
I am hoping in this retelling of the incredible life of Dr James Barry I haven’t caused offence to individuals who draw parallels from this story with their own life. My conclusions may be wrong and I invite you to read the story of James Barry and challenge my interpretation. The purpose of my writings is to draw attention to some of history’s lesser known characters who I think deserve better.
During the research for this I relied very heavily on the works of Hercules du Preez who has written extensively on the life of James Barry.
I would also recommend a work by Robert Hume – Anatomy of a Lie.
Whilst I did not entirely agree with the perspectives or conclusions of either of these authors they do present a lot of information and invite you to make a decision yourself.
Thanks to the Royal College of Nursing I have also read a number of letters particularly from Florence Nightingale which I have cited in this work.
There are a huge amount of letters available between former colleagues of James Barry which all read very much as “I knew he was a woman all along” however some correspondence questioning the physician who certified Barry’s death makes for particularly entertaining reading.
 I do wonder if there was an element of deliberate confusion caused by her adopting her late brothers name.
 Pronouns are hard!!
 Even given the quality of medical practice at the time I am confident when asked to “turn your head and cough” there is something the assessing doctor would notice.
 Boys will be boys.
 Although there are very few surviving records from Mauritius at the time.
 What little Barry is recorded as saying on the subject of slavery itself however appears fairly apathetic to the practice.
 Anyone who had no rights in British society at the time.
 They named the child James Barry.
 Or perhaps a “boy without a winkle”
 I’m not sure we do any better today.
 The Equality Act(2010) states that you should identify an individual by the gender they identify themselves. Whatever your thoughts on the act as a whole this is a decent enough social rule that it should be widely recognised.