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

Updated: Jul 7, 2022

When renowned surgeon Dr. James Barry passed in 1865, his 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.

Margaret Ann Bulkley was born in Cork, Ireland, around 1789. The daughter of a grocer, Margaret grew up frustrated by the limits placed on her because of her gender. At just 18 years old, Margaret yelled at her brother, “Were I not a girl, I would be a soldier!”

In her late teens, Margaret and her mother moved to London to stay with her uncle, James Barry. A member of the Royal Academy, Barry introduced his niece Margaret to aristocrats and other powerful people in the city. Barry believed Margaret's intellect would carry her far.

When James Barry passed in 1806, Margaret took his name to enroll in medical school.

In 1809, James Barry arrived at Edinburgh Medical School, one of the top medical schools in Europe. Barry wore a long overcoat and 3-inch shoe inserts. Fellow classmates remember Barry speaking in a high-pitched voice. 

In fact, Margaret Bulkley had adopted a new name and gender to enroll in medical school before women were allowed to attend. 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 receiving a medical degree in 1812, Barry decided to travel to Venezuela. The country let female doctors practice, so Barry could give up the disguise. But General Miranda was behind bars by 1812, leaving Barry with few options besides continuing the deception.

Barry soon enlisted in the British armed forces as a surgeon.

James Barry had a terrible temper. He yelled at Florence Nightengale in Istanbul because she didn't protect herself from the sun. He shouted at patients in his hospital and had a reputation for smashing medicine bottles against the wall. Barry even challenged a captain to a duel.

Throughout his long career, Barry swore heavily and flirted with women, with one man accusing the surgeon of paying "improper attentions" to his wife.

In one case, when someone said, "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. 

Eventually, Barry moved into the governor's residence. Rumors swirled that the surgeon and the governor were having an affair. One poster even accused Somerset of "buggering Dr. Barry." The scandal resulted in a commission to investigate the relationship, which exonerated both. 

Barry is said to have been a great surgeon, and he ascended to the rank of Inspector General in 1857. The role, equivalent to a Brigadier General, placed Barry in charge of military hospitals. 

In a testament to his skills, Barry's career included a notable breakthrough: He was the first surgeon to successfully perform a caesarean section where both mother and child lived. Barry performed the emergency C-section in 1826 on a kitchen table in Cape Town. Without anesthesia, Barry's patient and her child survived the procedure. 

Barry also pushed for social reforms in South Africa, railing against the harsh treatment at correctional facilities and asylums. The surgeon advocated for better water sanitation in Cape Town and treated everyone, including slaves and the poor.

In his first year at Edinburgh Medical School, James Barry wrote a letter to the Bulkley family solicitor, Daniel Reardon. Just weeks into disguising himself to enroll in medical school, Barry's letter carefully hid his secret. However, when filing the letter for his records, Reardon scrawled "Miss Bulkley" as the name of the sender.

That clue, which remained hidden until recently when Michael du Preez found the letter in the Yale University archive, proved that James Barry was Margaret Ann Bulkley. The handwriting on the letter also matched earlier letters from Margaret.

The letter also revealed another important fact: Multiple people knew about Barry's disguise from the beginning.

James Barry crossed the world as a surgeon in the British armed forces. On those journeys, Barry carried a travelling

trunk that hid his secret.

After Barry's demise, the trunk's new owner found a collage inside the lid that contained women's fashion plates. Barry had cut the 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. In fact, Barry ordered that he be interred in the same clothes he perished in.

But when Barry passed, his housemaid Sophia Bishop examined the body and discovered Barry's female anatomy. Bishop also uncovered another secret Barry had hidden - the body had stretch marks on its stomach, a sign of a previous pregnancy.

Barry's disguise also concealed a painful past. As a teenager, Margaret Ann Bulkley had been raped by a family member. In the aftermath, 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 to the General Register Office that were later leaked, McKinnon said that Barry's gender was "none of my business." 

Today, Barry's headstone in London's Kensal Green cemetery says nothing about the surgeon's secret.

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, which stated, "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. She had to pay higher fees simply because she was a woman, and multiple faculty members refused to teach a female student. 

Tensions simmered at the institution for a year until 1870, when a riot of 200 people tried to block Jex-Blake from an anatomy exam. As she wrote, "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 refused to let Jex-Blake take her degree and didn't grant its first medical degree to a woman until 1894.

For decades, people speculated about Barry's birth identity and why the doctor lived as a man for so many years. One newspaper claimed Barry was the illegitimate child of King George III. Charles Dickens declared Barry "A Mystery Still." Novels and plays told and retold Barry's life story.

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 trans pioneer? Or is Barry's story about women excluded from the professional world?

The truth includes both: Bulkley couldn't pursue medicine without changing her gender, and Barry lived for decades as a trans man. As for the surgeon's true gender identity, that's one secret Barry took to the grave.


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