James Barry (surgeon)

James Barry (179525 July1865), a surgeon in the British Army, was born on 9th November at Captain Lieutenant Bouchier's quarters at the Old Train Barrack Yard in Ann Street, Belfast, Co. Antrim in the north of Ireland.

Although Barry lived his adult life as a man, his true gender is unknown. It is widely accepted that Barry was a woman who chose to live as a man so that he might be accepted as a university student and be able to pursue his chosen career as a surgeon.

Past

Information about Barry's past is scarce and rife with myth and speculation. Some speculate that his original name would have been Miranda Stuart. He may have misrepresented his age. The reason for his living as a man may have been that it was practically impossible at the time for a woman to become a professional physician, especially in the army. Some have suggested that he was in actuality Margaret Bulkley, the niece of James Barry the artist.

Career

Barry was accepted into the University of Edinburgh as a 'literary and medical student' in 1809 and qualified with a Medical Doctorate in 1812. He was commissioned as a Hospital Assistant with the British Army in 1813. He might have served in the Battle of Waterloo (June 18, 1815). After that he served in India and then in South Africa. He arrived in Cape Town between 1815 and 1817.

In a couple of weeks he became the Medical Inspector for the colony. During his stay, he arranged for a better water system for Cape Town and performed one of the first known successful Caesarean sections - the boy was christened James Barry Munnik. He also gained enemies by criticizing local handling of medical matters. He left Cape Town in 1828.

His next postings included Mauritius in 1828, Trinidad and Tobago and the island of Saint Helena. In Saint Helena he got into trouble for leaving for England unannounced. Later he served in Malta, Corfu, the Crimea, Jamaica and in 1831, Canada.

By this time he had reached the rank of Inspector General, H.M. Army Hospitals. However, during his next posting in Saint Helena he got into trouble with the internal politics of the island, was arrested and sent to home and demoted to Staff Surgeon. His next posting was the West Indies in 1838.

In the West Indies he concentrated on medicine, management and improving the conditions of the troops and was later promoted to Principal Medical Officer. In 1845, Barry contracted yellow fever and left for England for sick leave in October.

Barry was posted to Malta on November 2, 1846. Within a month of his arrival he took a seat in the local church that was reserved for the clergy and was severely reprimanded. During his stay he had to deal with a threat of a cholera epidemic that eventually arrived in 1850.

He left Malta for Corfu in 1851 with the rank of Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals. He left Corfu in 1857 for Canada as a Inspector-General of Hospitals.

James Barry retired in 1864 — reputedly against his wishes — and returned to England. He died July 25, 1865 and apparently the charwomen who took care of the body were the first to discover his female body. One of them claimed to recognize pregnancy scars. Afterwards many people claimed to "have known it all along".

He was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery with the only name he was ever known by and with full rank. His manservant John subsequently returned to Jamaica.

Character

Barry was not always a pleasant fellow to be around. He could be tactless, impatient, argumentative and opinionated. He reputedly fought a couple of duels when someone commented on his voice, features, or professionalism. He was punished many times for insubordination and discourteous behavior but often received lenient sentences. During the Crimean War (1854 - 1856), he got into an argument with Florence Nightingale.

He appears to have had a good bedside manner and professional skill. He tried to improve sanitary conditions wherever he went and improve the conditions and diet of the common soldier. He reacted indignantly to unnecessary suffering. His insistence to better conditions of poor and commoners annoyed both quacks and his peers. He was a vegetarian and teetotaler and reputedly recommended wine baths for some patients. His dogs and a black manservant named John were his constant companions.

Further reading

  • The Perfect Gentleman, by June Rose
  • The Strange Story of Dr. James Barry: Army Surgeon, Inspector-General of Hospitals, Discovered on Death to be a Woman, by Isobel Rae
  • Scanty Particulars: The Scandalous Life and Astonishing Secret of James Barry, Queen Victoria's Most Eminent Military Doctor, by Rachel Holmes - and a mini-bio of Rachel Holmes and her novel - ISBN 0-375-50556-3
  • With a Silent Companion (historical fiction), by Florida Ann Town (for ages 12-16) - ISBN 0-88995-211-6
  • The Secret Life of Dr. James Miranda Barry (historical fiction), by Anne and Ivan Kronenfeld
  • James Miranda Barry (historical fiction), by Patricia Duncker (as well as an upcoming movie based on the novel)
  • Dr. James Barry: Her secret story by Olga Racster (out of print)
  • "The Doctor" by Patricia Duncker
"The Woman Who Won Fame in the British Army as a Man" by Colin Johnston Robb. An article published in The Northern Whig and Belfast Post, Friday, November 16th, 1846

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