Dr James Barry: a surgeon with a secret

As part of our occasional series profiling remarkable yet unheralded characters from history, Jeremy Dronfield introduces Dr James Barry, the medical pioneer and eminent surgeon to aristocracy, who was forced to conceal a fundamental fact – that ‘he’ was in fact a ‘she’…

This article was first published in the February 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

Dr James Barry. (Illustration by Stavros Damos)

Dr James Barry. (Illustration by Stavros Damos)

On 25 July 1826, Dr James Barry was faced with a terrible decision – one that no surgeon ever wanted to make. In the middle of a lashing rainstorm, he’d been called out from Cape Town, where he was a surgeon with the British garrison, to attend to a Wilhelmina Munnik’s labour. The midwife had admitted defeat. A brief examination confirmed to Dr Barry that this baby would not be born in the normal way. A caesarean operation would have to be performed – a procedure invariably fatal to the mother, done only as 
a last resort to save the baby. Mrs Munnik, in an extremity of anguish, consented, and Dr Barry prepared his instruments. There was no anaesthetic; Mrs Munnik was held down firmly on the bed. With his renowned deftness, Dr Barry made the first incision – 
a long vertical cut from below the navel.

Nobody present knew that James Barry – described by Charles Dickens as a “fair-faced slender youth”, who was “as clever as 
he was impudent” – was the only qualified surgeon in the world who knew from personal experience what childbirth was like. Beneath his military attire, this strangely small and smooth-skinned gentleman was in fact a woman. Through deceit and disguise she had become the first – and, for many decades, the only – woman to qualify and practise as a physician and surgeon.

 

Going undercover

Her real name was Margaret Anne Bulkley, born in Cork, Ireland, in c1789, the daughter of a hapless shopkeeper who ended up in a debtors’ jail. Margaret was a brilliantly intelligent and bold girl. At the age of 19, having borne a child (the result of a rape at the hands of a dissolute uncle) and with no prospect other than a bleak life as a governess, she audaciously disguised herself as a man in order to study medicine.

Her plan was influenced by her mentor, exiled Venezuelan revolutionary General Francisco de Miranda. She intended to become a surgeon, then resume her true identity and accompany him on his military campaign to free Venezuela from Spanish rule. Supplied with a small inheritance (contested by the same uncle who had raped her), Margaret disguised herself in male attire and enrolled at Edinburgh University.

It was a grim world – being the era of bodysnatchers, grisly dissections on rotting corpses and brutal surgery without anaesthetic or hygiene. Margaret endured 
it, and ‘James Barry’ qualified in 1812.

But the original plan was thwarted. General Miranda was betrayed and imprisoned by the Spanish, and Margaret was trapped in the persona she’d created. 

Her solution was typically bold. “Was I not a girl,” she had once written, years before having any notion that it might come true, 
“I would be a soldier!” James Barry, turning ‘his’ back on a potentially lucrative career as a society doctor, joined the army as a surgeon, donning the red coat and sword that Margaret had coveted as a child (plus stacked heels and padding to make up for her diminutive build).

So began a career of deception, adventure and incredible achievement spanning decades, from the tail end of the Napoleonic Wars to the Crimea. Dr Barry served throughout the British empire, from Jamaica to Canada, from Corfu to the Cape, and rose to the rank of general. He ran pioneering hospitals, championed public health for the poor, developed treatments for venereal disease (endemic among soldiers), and was court-martialled for ungentlemanly conduct (on charges of insulting a fellow officer, of which he was exonerated). Barry became the personal physician to several aristocrats, including Lord Charles Somerset, governor of the Cape colony, who was his closest friend; they were alleged to be lovers – a scandal that led to a court case.

Margaret Bulkley lived as James Barry for 56 years. Her true identity remained a mystery until the author Michael du Preez discovered her real name in 2008.

 

Life under strain

James Barry was renowned for his skill as 
a surgeon, medical pioneer and campaigner for social justice. He was also known for his peculiarly effeminate manner, his high-pitched voice, his wonderful charm, but also his volatile temper. 

He fought a duel against a fellow officer over an insulting remark Barry made about 
a lady; he gave Florence Nightingale a dressing-down for improper dress. “The most hardened creature I ever met,” Nightingale recalled. “He behaved like a brute.” He was also prone to violent outbursts against colleagues who failed to follow his instructions – he even clashed with an eminent royal physician.

Those few who stumbled upon James Barry’s true sex suffered the worst of the notorious temper; a nurse who burst in on the doctor undressing was forced to flee the country; a laundress who spied on him in his bath was savagely thrashed. More often, Dr Barry’s explosive ire was directed at people in authority who resisted his reforms for the benefit of troops, the sick and the poor. His temper was regarded as an eccentricity, and nobody – even after his secret was revealed – ever considered the effects that stress must have on a woman living as a man in the Victorian world, doing an intensely demanding job. The pressure on Margaret must have been unbearable – yet she bore it.

And she excelled. James Barry’s brilliance reached a high point on that stormy night in 1826, with the delivery of Mrs Munnik’s baby. Miraculously, Mrs Munnik survived the operation (possibly due to Barry’s radical devotion to hygiene). It was the first fully successful caesarean delivery anywhere in the British empire. The baby was named James Barry Munnik in his honour, and there has been a James Barry in every generation of the family, to this day.

Although she sometimes revelled in her male identity, Margaret’s decision to live as a man appears to have been entirely practical. There have been theories that she was biologically intergender (a hermaphrodite), but the evidence is poor, perhaps stemming from a Victorian reluctance to believe that a woman could achieve such things – becoming a surgeon, pioneer and British Army general. 

In fact, Margaret never quite let go of her original self. After Barry’s death in 1865, and more than half a century since Margaret had put away her last dress, her travelling trunk was opened. A collage of fashion plates from ladies’ magazines was found pasted inside the lid, testimony to the frustrated woman hidden within the masculine shell.  

Jeremy Dronfield is a historian and writer.

Find out more: Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time by Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield (Oneworld, 2016)

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