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Dr James Barry on the LHS, with John his loyal manservant from South Africa, who stayed with James for 50 years, and his dog, Psyche.

Dr James Barry on the LHS, with John his loyal manservant from South Africa, who stayed with James for 50 years, and his dog, Psyche.

Secret Life of Dr James Barry

On the morning of July 25, 1865, just after dawn, a loud scream rang out around the great physician’s deathbed.

Dr James Barry had not been an easy patient. A man as cantankerous as he was brilliant, few dared argue with the Inspector General of Military Hospitals, so for the past month his curtains had been kept drawn, ensuring his bedroom on London’s Cavendish Square was in a state of perpetual half-light.

But now he was dead, Sophia Bishop, the charwoman sent to prepare his corpse, had no intention of complying with his final wish, which was that on no account should he be changed out of the clothes in which he had died.

“The devil!” cried Sophia, as she pulled up his nightshirt to wash his body and quite literally, uncovered a secret the doctor had managed to hide for most of his life. “It’s a woman – and [noting what she took for stretch marks on his stomach] a woman that has had a child.”

Sophia did not disclose?the information until after the funeral. The story grabbed the headlines for a time, but there was no conclusive evidence as there had not been a post-mortem. ?Interestingly for someone of such a high?military?rank, and who had given 50 years of loyal and distinguished service, no obituary?was ever?published. Furthermore, the?embarrassed?British Military placed an embargo on Dr Barry?s?military?record for 100 years.

Dr James Barry was one of the most highly respected surgeons of his day. He had risen from hospital assistant to become the top-ranking doctor in the British Army and was known as a zealous reformer who had served in garrisons from South Africa to Jamaica. He performed one of the first successful Caesarean sections in medical history, was summoned by Napoleon to attend to the son of his private secretary and, thanks to his careful subterfuge, was the first woman to practice medicine in Britain.

Despite “a most peculiar squeaky voice and mincing manner”, as one ambassador’s daughter noted, Dr Barry’s fierce temper ensured he was a force to be reckoned with. He even crossed swords with another leading medical figure of his day, Florence Nightingale, who later described him as “a brute” and “the most hardened creature I ever met throughout the Army”.

Just how exactly did he – or she, as perhaps we ought to call her – pull off this lifelong charade? ?Research among a cache of letters, accounts and legal documents has helped to make sense of the extraordinary life of Dr James Barry.

Over the decades, a range of conditions, including that she was a hermaphrodite, have been suggested to explain away Dr Barry’s ability to have begun life as a female, yet successfully persuade everyone that she was a man.

But the truth is she was simply a woman, born in Ireland as Margaret Ann Bulkley sometime in the 1790s, the daughter of Mary-Ann and Jeremiah, a greengrocer from Cork. In 1803, Jeremiah Bulkley was sent to prison for debt and his wife turned to her brother, the famous artist James Barry, to help ease the family’s financial troubles.

Barry was part of a liberal, forward-thinking set who were keen believers in women’s rights and education, and when he died in 1806, leaving some money to the Bulkleys, his influential friends gladly took Margaret and her mother under their wing. The Bulkleys moved first to London, where Margaret began to take lessons from the physician Edward Fryer.

Margaret proved an able pupil and before long an even more elaborate, if not preposterously ambitious, plan had been hatched for her future. At that time, women were not permitted to enter university, so it was decided that she would masquerade as a man and train as a doctor.

In 1809, Margaret – assuming her uncle’s name, James Barry – sailed from London to Edinburgh where she planned to enrol at the university as a medical student, and she and her mother intended to establish themselves as aunt and nephew.

“It was very useful for Mrs Bulkley to have a gentleman to take care of her on board ship,” Barry wrote to one of her sponsors. The establishment of a new life was total. Mother and daughter isolated themselves from anyone who might not be trusted to keep this darkest of secrets.

Margaret wore an overcoat to disguise her womanly curves, and fibbed about her age as a means of explaining her smooth chin and high voice. She graduated three years later, moved back to London for a six-month stint as an apprentice surgeon at St Thomas’s Hospital and, in 1813, joined the Army. She was a misfit from the start: less than 5ft tall, she wore stacked heels and had to have 3in soles fastened to her boots to give her elevation. But the flamboyant styles of the day – men dressed effeminately as a fashion, not a sexual statement – worked in her favour.

In 1816 Barry was posted to the colony on the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.

There, she acquired a black manservant who would stay with her for the next 50 years, and whose trusted task it was to lay out six small towels each morning that she would use like bandages to disguise her curves and broaden her slender shoulders.

She rapidly became known for her foibles, which included sleeping every night with a black poodle called Psyche, riding about in dress uniform wearing a cavalry sword and taking a goat everywhere so she could drink its milk.

She also acquired a reputation as a ladies’ man, perhaps believing this would give her better cover.

As fearless in her professional as she was in her personal life, Barry instigated a sweeping series of reforms, campaigning against poor sanitation and overcrowding in the Cape’s prisons, and for lepers as well as the soldiers it was her duty to look after. In Lord Charles Somerset, the governor of the colony, who became a close friend and, possibly, also a confidant and lover, she had a powerful ally whose protection must have helped to repel any uneasy rumours.

Barry’s sharp tongue and fierce redhead’s temper did the rest.

For a period of about one year – around 1819 – Barry disappeared.

Afterwards she claimed to have been sent to Mauritius, but some historians believe she may have fallen pregnant and given birth to a stillborn child. But she returned, and in 1826 cemented her reputation as a master surgeon when, despite knowing that no woman in Britain had ever survived the procedure, she conducted an emergency Caesarean on one Mrs Munnik – on her kitchen table – and saved her life as well as the baby’s.

Barry remained in South Africa until 1828, when she embarked on a series of postings to Mauritius, Jamaica and St Helena, among other places. By 1845 Barry was serving as principal medical officer in the West Indies, where she contracted a terrible bout of yellow fever. Convinced she was not going to survive, she laid down strict instructions that her unexamined body should be left in a nightshirt and wrapped in a winding sheet. In fact, she did recover, and when the Crimean War broke out she demanded to be sent to the front line. Her request was refused and, instead, she was stationed in Corfu to tend to the wounded when they had been shipped out there.

With typical determination, Barry used her leave to go to the Crimea anyway, and this is how she came to meet Florence Nightingale. On paper, these two great pioneering reformers with identical concerns about sanitation should have got on famously; instead, thanks to Barry’s outspoken manner, they had a furious row.

In 1857 Barry was sent to Canada and promoted to the post of inspector-general of hospitals.

However, a career in the tropics, and the onset of old age, had not equipped her for the freezing winters. She suffered with flu and bronchitis and was forced to retire. Along with her loyal servant from South Africa, she came back to London and it was there that she succumbed to a diarrhea epidemic that eventually killed her.

Right until the end Barry had done everything to prevent her secret from being discovered, even requesting that no post-mortem be carried out on her corpse.

In the end, though, our knowledge of it only makes a life already noteworthy even more remarkable.

Victoria Moore

Revealed: Army surgeon actually a woman

James Barry Biography