This is a well known story to which is hard to add anything new. There are at least four full length biographies of the cross dressing, duelling, pioneering surgeon Dr James Barry (the most recent published last year), a couple of novels, one successful stage play (starring Sybil Thorndike in 1918) an unsuccessful one (by the Irish writer Sebastian Barry, no relative), countless newspaper articles (the first published a few weeks after his death and continuing, more or less uninterrupted, ever since) and a projected film with actress Rachel Weisz signed up for the main role.
|A portrait of the young James Barry|
Outwardly James Barry lived a life of almost exemplary colonial dullness. When his biographies deal with the known facts of his life they generally make dreary reading; he studied at Edinburgh and became a surgeon, joined the army, served in South Africa, Mauritius, St Helena, Jamaica, Malta, Corfu and Canada, was dedicated to his job to the exclusion of almost all other activities, was promoted, never married or formed many close relationships and died in obscurity and genteel poverty in London. He was generally acknowledged to be a cantankerous and argumentative individual but one who was very good at his job. His greatest medical achievement was performing the first successful caesarean section in British medicine, the criteria by which success was judged being the survival of both mother and child. The operation was performed in South Africa where the usually staid progress of his life was interrupted in June 1824 when he became the subject of a scandalous libel written in large block capitals in a disguised hand and nailed to a post on one of the bridges over the canal at Heerengracht in Cape Town.
“A person, living at Newlands, takes this method of making it known to the public authorities of this Colony that on the 5th instant he detected Lord Charles buggering Dr Barry. Lady Charles had her suspicions, or saw something that led her to suspicion, which had caused a general quarrel….The person is ready to come and make oaths to the above.”
|Lord Charles Somerset|
The libel caused uproar; the alleged buggerer was Lord Charles Somerset, 20 years Barry’s senior, the son of the Duke of Beaufort, Governor of Cape Colony and member of the Privy Council. Barry was his personal physician and everyone knew the two men were on exceedingly good terms with each other, they just hadn’t realised quite how warm relations between the two were. The scandal did not confine itself to Cape Colony, the news reached England and questions were asked about it on more than one occasion in both the House of Commons and the Lords. Lord Charles was eventually recalled to explain himself, which he evidently did to everyone’s satisfaction as no charges were ever proffered against either him or Barry. Barry eventually lived down the South African disgrace and carried on devoting his life to his career. It was only when he died that a fact emerged which made the sodomy scandal pale into insignificance (or perhaps cast into a rather different light). A month after his death a Dublin newspaper, Saunder’s News Letter and Daily Advertiser, ran the story of the military surgeon who was, unbeknown to and apparently unsuspected by everyone who knew him (except perhaps for Lord Charles Somerset) a woman. The story was picked up by the English provincial newspapers which ran the Irish story word for word:
A STRANGE STORY. An incident is now being discussed in military circles so extraordinary that, were not its truth capable of being vouched for official authority, the narration would certainly deemed absolutely incredible. Our officers quartered at the Cape between 15 and 20 years ago may remember a certain Dr Barry attached to the medical staff there, and enjoying a reputation for considerable skill in his profession, especially for firmness, decision and rapidity in difficult operations. This gentleman had entered the army in 1813, had passed, of course, through the grades of assistant surgeon and surgeon in various regiments, and had served such in various regiments, and had served as such in various quarters of the globe. His professional acquirements had procured for him his promotion to the staff at the Cape. He was clever and agreeable, save for the drawbacks of a most quarrelsome temper and an inordinate addiction to argument, which perpetually brought the former peculiarly into play. He was excessively plain, of feeble proportions, and laboured under the imperfection of a ludicrously squeaking voice. Any natural chaffing with regard to these, however, especially roused his ire, but was at length discontinued on his ‘calling out’ a persevering offender, and shooting him through the lungs. About 1840 he became promoted to be medical inspector, and was transferred to Malta. There he was equally distinguished by his skill and his pugnacious propensities, the latter becoming so inconveniently developed upon the slightest difference of opinion with him, that at last no notice was allowed to be taken of his fits of temper. He proceeded from Malta to Corfu, where he was quartered for years, still conspicuous for the same peculiarities. When our Government ceded the lonian Islands to Greece, and our troops, of course, quitted the territory Dr Barry elected to leave the army and take up his residence for the rest his days at Corfu. He there died about a month ago and upon his death was discovered to be woman! Very probably this discovery was elicited during the natural preparations for interment, but there seems to be an idea prevalent that either verbally, during his last illness, or by some writing, perused immediately after his (for I must still use the “masculine”) death, he had begged to be buried without post mortem examination of any sort. This, most likely, only aroused the curiosity of the two nurses who attended him, for it was to them, it appears, that the disclosures of this mystery is owing. Under the circumstances, the fact was deemed so important that medical testimony was called in to report and record its truth. By this investigation not only was the assertion placed beyond a doubt, but it was equally beyond a doubt brought to light that the individual in question had, at some time or other, been a mother! This is all that is yet known of this extraordinary story. The motives that occasioned, and the time when commenced this singular decoction, are both shrouded in mystery. But thus it stands indubitable fact that a woman was for forty years an officer in the British service, had fought one duel and had sought many more, had pursued a legitimate medical education, had received a regular diploma, and had acquired almost a celebrity for skill as surgical operator! There is no doubt whatever about the “fact,” but I doubt whether even Miss Braddon herself would have ventured to make use of it in fiction.— Irish Paper
Stonehaven Journal - Thursday 31 August 1865
No sooner had the story been published then individuals who had known Barry before his death rushed into print to let the world know that they had always had their doubts about the masculinity of the good doctor, a letter from a Dr McGowan of Paisley for example appeared in the Whitehaven News of 07 September;
THE LATE DR. BARRY. We have received the following letter from a medical gentleman resident at Paisley :
Dear Sir, ln reference to notice taken in your paper of a Dr. Barry, who has lately died, I would take it kind if you could give me some information of this extraordinary person, for I had the pleasure of knowing him intimately twenty-three or twenty-four years ago, in the Island of Trinidad, when he held the appointment of Inspector General Hospitals. He was always suspected of being female from his effeminate features and voice, and having neither beard nor whiskers. He was a very bold person, and challenged one or two of our officials for naming him a diminutive creature. He had a favourite little dog, which always carried about with him, and it was currently said that had made a will, leaving the dog all his effects, and Sambo, £100 as a legacy. He lay at the point of death one time, and gave strict injunctions to my friend, Dr. O’Connor, who attended him, not to allow his body to be inspected or disturbed in the event of his decease, but to be buried immediately with his clothes on. He always took care never to be seen . . . like any ordinary man. He was highly respected, and was a frequent attendant at the Governor’s levees. He was a strict vegetarian, and his regulation sword was as long as himself. He resided at a country house, a gun-shot from St. James’s Barracks, about two miles from Port Spain, in Trinidad, my native place.
You are at liberty to make use of this letter you please; and let me have your answer as soon as convenient. Meantime. I am, dear sir, yours very truly,
R. T. McGowan, M.D. Paisley, Sept. 2nd, 1865.
P S.-I may state that Dr. Barry was looked upon by some in the Island as the illegitimate offspring of some English nobleman, from the great influence and haughty bearing which he used to possess. R. T. McC.
|James Barry by George Richmond|
The story in Saunders News Letter was full of errors including fundamental ones like the location of Barry’s death. He did not die, or even live, as the paper claimed in Corfu. Barry was living as a lodger in rooms rented from a dentist at 14 Margaret Street, just north of Oxford Circus. Although he was living in straitened circumstances he continued to be attended, as he had been for the best part of thirty years by his faithful black valet. No one knew the valet’s name and he was dubbed Black John by the newspapers or Sambo by rude and ignorant individuals like Dr R.T. McGowan of Paisley. His valet was with him when he died as a result of chronic diarrhoea caused by dysentery at 4.00am on 25 July 1865. A woman called Sophia Bishop, a charwoman employed by the dentist’s wife, was asked to prepare Barry’s body for burial. Responsibility for his interment was taken by the army which bought a 3 guinea plot in Kensal Green to bury him in. They also bought a headstone, a plain inexpensive slab of white stone which they had inscribed with his name, job title (Inspector General of Hospitals) and the wrong date of death. It was only after the funeral that Sophia Bishop made her way to the office of the registrar and demanded to speak to the doctor who had certified Barry’s death, Dr D.R. McKinnon. It was only after the story broke in Saunders that the registrar general wrote to Dr McKinnon to ask him what he knew of the strange affair that the doctor related what he had been told by Sophia Bishop:
On one occasion after Dr Barry’s death at the office of Sir Charles McGregor, there was the woman who performed the last offices for Dr Barry was waiting to speak to me. She wished to obtain some prerequisites of his employment, which the Lady who kept the lodging house in which Dr Barry died had refused to give her. Amongst other things she said that Dr Barry was a female and that I was a pretty doctor not to know this and she would not like to be attended by me. I informed her that it was none of my business whether Dr Barry was a male or a female, and that I thought that he might be neither, viz. an imperfectly developed man. She then said that she had examined the body, and was a perfect female and farther that there were marks of him having had a child when very young. I then enquired how have you formed that conclusion. The woman, pointing to the lower part of her stomach, said ‘from marks here. I am a married woman and the mother of nine children and I ought to know.’ The woman seems to think that she had become acquainted with a great secret and wished to be paid for keeping it. I informed her that all Dr Barry’s relatives were dead, and that it was no secret of mine, and that my own impression was that Dr Barry was a Hermaphrodite.
|The only known photograph of Barry taken with his valet and his dog Psyche at a studio in Kingston, Jamaica|
Although it had been suspected for some time, research carried out by South African urologist Dr Michael du Preez, published in his recent book “Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time”, finally confirmed beyond doubt that Dr James Barry was born around 1789 in Cork to Jeremiah and Mary Ann Bulkley and christened Margaret Ann. As a teenager Margaret Anne was the victim of unwanted sexual attention, possibly from a family member, and became pregnant, giving birth to a daughter Juliana who was passed off their own by her parents. Jeremiah’s grocery business fell on hard times and he presumably fell into temptation regarding quick and easy ways to make money as the last known record of him is on a convict ship bound for New South Wales. Mary Ann took her daughter to London where she had a wealthy relative, the Royal Academician James Barry. She must have been in despair when her brother died but probably perked up considerably when she was told he had died intestate and therefore, as the only surviving relative, she had inherited his entire fortune. Quite why Mary Ann took her daughter to Edinburgh and went along with her plan to disguise herself as a man and enrol in the university as a medical student we will never know. It seems highly likely that not only her mother but several of her uncle’s influential friends including the Venezuelan General Francisco de Miranda and David Steuart Erskine, the Earl of Buchan, were aware of the deception and either encouraged or colluded in it. The plan may have been to qualify as a doctor disguised as a man and then move to Venezuela and practice as a woman but General Miranda’s early death put paid to that idea. Evidently Margaret Ann was comfortable enough in her role as a man to continue with it for the rest of her life. Her autobiography would be fascinating but colossal deceptions require absolute dedication to never breaking cover and no word regarding the truth of her sex or how she felt about her secret life ever escaped her lips.
|The grave in an earlier, more pristine, incarnationn|