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'...

A drawing of surgeon James Barry (c1789–1865) in uniform. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

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

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.

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