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The Woman Who Disguised Herself As A Man For Decades To Practice Surgery Before Women Were Allowed

Updated: Apr 19

Throughout medical history, certain figures stand out not only for their professional achievements but also for the intriguing complexities of their personal lives. Dr. James Barry, a distinguished 19th-century British military surgeon, is one such enigmatic character whose legacy continues to fascinate scholars and enthusiasts alike. Unveiling the layers of Dr. Barry's life and identity reveals a narrative that transcends the boundaries of conventional gender norms, offering profound insights into the complexities of human existence.

Dr. Barry passed in 1865, and it was upon his death that Barry's housemaid Sophia Bishop made a startling discovery: Barry was biologically female. 

Bishop's screams alerted others in the house, and the undertakers quickly confirmed Barry's secret. The news spread across the British Empire.

James Barry successfully hid the fact that he was a woman for decades - but why? Some see Barry as a trans pioneer, while others claim Barry only adopted the male persona because women were banned from medical school. Barry's secret life raises many questions apart from how a nearly 5-foot-tall woman was able to pass as a man for decades.

Born Margaret Ann Bulkley in County Cork, Ireland, in 1795, Dr. Barry's journey commenced under the veil of secrecy and subterfuge. In an era when opportunities for women in medicine were severely limited, Margaret Bulkley assumed the identity of her deceased uncle, James Barry, to pursue her ambitions in the male-dominated field of medicine. Embarking on a journey of self-reinvention, in 1809 she enrolled at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, where she exhibited exceptional prowess and dedication to her studies.

Barry wore a long overcoat and 3-inch shoe inserts. Fellow classmates remember Barry speaking in a high-pitched voice. 

Barry never took off his overcoat, even in summer, and stared down anyone who questioned his story.

The other medical students at Edinburgh found James Barry suspicious. But they didn't suspect Barry was actually a woman in disguise.

Instead, the suspicions rested on Barry's age.

Because of his height, high voice, and smooth skin, many thought Barry was actually a child, perhaps a boy as young as 12 disguised as a man. After several years at Edinburgh, the medical school tried to bar Barry from sitting for his exams on suspicion that he was too young. Lord Erskine, a friend of the deceased James Barry, intervened to make sure Barry could take the exam. 

Before transforming into James Barry, Margaret Ann Bulkley had befriended General Francisco de Miranda of Venezuela. Miranda almost certainly knew of Margaret's disguise. When renaming herself, Margaret honoured Miranda by calling herself James Miranda Stuart Barry.

After earning a medical degree in 1812, Barry opted to journey to Venezuela. In the country where women were permitted to practice medicine, Barry could abandon the need for disguise. However, with General Miranda imprisoned by 1812, Barry had limited choices but to persist with the charade. Consequently, Barry swiftly joined the British armed forces as a surgeon.

Apparently James Barry had a terrible temper, he yelled at Florence Nightengale in Istanbul because she didn't protect herself from the sun. He raised his voice at patients within the hospital and gained notoriety for hurling medicine bottles against the wall. Barry went as far as challenging a captain to a duel.

Barry would swear heavily and enjoyed flirting with women, one disgruntled man when as far as accusing the surgeon of paying "improper attentions" to his wife.

On one occasion when Barry was told by a colleague, "You look more like a woman than a man," Barry struck him in the face with a whip. 

As an army surgeon, James Barry spent 10 years serving in Cape Town, South Africa. While in South Africa, Barry befriended Lord Charles Somerset, the British governor for the colony. 

In due course, Barry relocated to the governor's residence. Speculations circulated regarding an alleged affair between the surgeon and the governor. One poster even accused Somerset of engaging in inappropriate conduct with Dr. Barry. This scandal prompted a commission to probe the relationship, which ultimately cleared both parties of any wrongdoing.

Barry was a hugely talented surgeon, and he ascended to the rank of Inspector General in 1857. Putting Barry in charge of military hospitals. 

Demonstrating his exceptional skills, Barry achieved a significant milestone in his career: He became the first surgeon to successfully conduct a caesarean section resulting in the survival of both mother and child.

Barry performed the emergency C-section in 1826 on a kitchen table in Cape Town. Without anesthesia, both mother and child survived the operation.  

Whilst working as a surgeon, Barry also pushed for social reforms in South Africa, speaking out against the severe conditions in correctional facilities and asylums, the surgeon campaigned for improved water sanitation in Cape Town and provided medical care to all, regardless of their social status, including slaves and the impoverished.

Throughout his long career, Barry would travel extensively. On those journeys he carried a trunk that

after Barry died, the trunks new owner found a collage of Barry's creation, he'd cut pictures from magazines and glued them inside the trunk.

Author Jeremy Dronfield explains, “Here, in this secret shrine, 'James' had collected and lovingly, longingly, glued images of all the gowns and bonnets, ribbons and shawls, slippers and coiffures that he had never had the chance to wear."

In 1865, Barry turned 70. Nearing the end of his life, Barry declared that he did not want anyone to dress his body after his passing, requesting that he be buried in the same clothes he died in.

However, upon Barry's passing, his housemaid Sophia Bishop inspected the body and made a startling revelation: Barry possessed female anatomy. Bishop also uncovered another hidden secret: stretch marks on the stomach, indicating a past pregnancy.

Delving further into Barry's history it was also revealed that as a teenager, Margaret Ann Bulkley had been raped by a family member. Margaret gave birth and her mother raised the baby.

Major D.R. McKinnon was James Barry's doctor. When Barry passed in 1865, McKinnon signed the death certificate certifying that Barry was a man.

In letters sent to the General Register Office, which were later made public, McKinnon stated that Barry's gender was not a matter of concern to him. Today, Barry's headstone in London's Kensal Green cemetery makes no mention of the surgeon's hidden identity.

James Barry lived and perished before any UK medical schools began admitting women. Four years after his passing, in 1869, the University of Edinburgh finally admitted Sophia Jex-Blake. Jex-Blake had already been rejected from Harvard University, they had claimed, "There is no provision for the education of women in any department of this university."

Sophia Jex-Blake

But it wasn't a smooth path at Edinburgh for Jex-Blake faced discriminatory treatment, being subjected to higher fees solely because of her gender, and encountering multiple faculty members who refused to instruct a female student.

Tensions brewed at the institution for a year until 1870 when a riot involving 200 individuals attempted to prevent Jex-Blake from taking an anatomy exam. She recounted, "As soon as we reached the Surgeon's Hall we saw a dense mob filling up the road... The crowd was sufficient to stop all the traffic for an hour. We walked up to the gates, which remained open until we came within a yard of them, when they were slammed in our faces by a number of young men."

Edinburgh University denied Jex-Blake the opportunity to obtain her degree and did not award its first medical degree to a woman until 1894.

Today, we know that Barry was born Margaret Bulkley. We also know that Bulkley adopted a male persona to enroll in medical school. But today's debate over Barry uses different terms than the 19th-century debate. What pronouns should we use (most use "he," but not all) when discussing Barry?

Was Barry a trailblazer for transgender rights? Or does Barry's narrative shed light on the exclusion of women from the professional sphere?

In reality, both is true: Bulkley's pursuit of medicine necessitated a gender change, while Barry lived out the majority of his life as a transgender man. However, the surgeon's authentic gender identity remained a mystery, concealed by Barry until the end of his days.



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