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Dr James Barry – a most remarkable man, born 1795, died 1865.

A headstone in Kensal Green cemetery in London states that the grave contains the remains of “Dr James Barry, Inspector General of Hospitals. Died 26 July 1865. Aged 70 years”. A somewhat bare description of a colourful life, and one which speaks volumes about prejudice and the determination to succeed two centuries ago.

Barry had been born in County Cork in 1795. Mother was Mary Anne, who was the sister to the artist James Barry (a somewhat well-connected professor of painting at the Royal Academy). Father (Jeremiah) was a green-grocer. Jeremiah died when the child was young, leaving mother and child in dire financial straits. The youngster displayed considerable academic skill and announced a desire to qualify as a doctor. Which is where the prejudice came in; for the young James was in fact a girl, christened Margaret Ann Bulkley, and in those days there was a complete embargo on women becoming doctors.

Headstone of Dr James Barry Image

Using the family connections, which included a General Miranda from Venezuela and also the 11th Earl of Buchan, Margaret adopted her uncle’s name, caught the ferry to Scotland, and in 1809 enrolled as a boy at the School of Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, aged 14. The idea was that (s)he would qualify as a doctor and then go to Venezuela under the patronage and protection of General Miranda, but that part of the plan failed when the Spanish authorities threw the good General in prison, where he died in 1816.

Newly qualified, Dr James Barry decided to continue the  male masquerade  and served a six-month stint as an apprentice surgeon at St Thomas’s Hospital. In 1813 she joined the British Army medical corps, as a man. Barry was posted to the Cape of Good Hope where she befriended the Governor, Lord Charles Somerset. Possibly Somerset knew of Dr Barry’s true identity since he too was a friend of the Earl of Buchan.  The Governor provided Barry with private apartments at his residence, and before long rumours started  to circulate that Dr Barry and Lord Charles were involved in an ‘unnaturally close’ relationship. These rumours led to a Royal Commission being established to investigate their scandalous relationship. Somerset returned to England and Barry was later exonerated.

Right from the start of her army career Barry stood out as a somewhat eccentric ‘male’. She spent her nights with a black poodle called Psyche, and kept a goat with her at all times so that she could drink its milk. She refused to eat meat and was a teetotaller – but one who advocated bathing in wine! She also rode around wearing full dress uniform, carrying a cavalry sword. She acquired a black manservant who was to remain in her service for half a century. (Apparently one of the servant’s jobs each day was to lay out half a dozen towels to be used like bandages to hide her curves and broaden her shoulders).

Dr Barry was a fiery and bombastic red-head who had a reputation for being prickly: frequently taunted for being effeminate and for having a high pitched voice Barry responded with angry outbursts. She compensated for her lack of stature (she was five foot tall in her stocking-ed feet) by wearing three inch risers in her shoes, and wore over-sized clothing. Anyone getting too personal in their remarks was likely to be challenged to a duel – reportedly she fought on several occasions and is believed to have been injured in one and reportedly shot an opponent in another. Unbelievably, the dashing young doctor even nurtured a reputation as a ladies’ man – perhaps to deflect attention.

Her irascible temper meant that advancement in her career was frequently disrupted; she was court-martialled on at least one occasion, and regularly fell foul of her superiors because of her insubordination. Her saving grace was that she was an exceptional surgeon, performing the first successful Cesarean section on the continent of Africa in which both mother and baby survived. This despite the fact that the operation was performed on a kitchen table….! (The baby was named James Barry Hertzog, and a descendant went on to become Prime Minister of South Africa for the fifteen years leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War).

She campaigned constantly against unsanitary medical practices and against over-crowding in hospitals;  she instituted rigid controls on poor hygiene and introduced radical treatment for leprosy and tropical diseases. By doing this she transformed the hospitals in which these diseases were treated and achieved remarkable results. She then applied to go to the Crimea to see battlefield conditions at first hand. The Army declined her request, sending her instead to Corfu where she left her post and went anyway. Having reached the Crimea she met Florence Nightingale, who pronounced that ‘he’ was a brute and “….the most hardened creature I ever met throughout the Army.” They didn’t get on at all, largely because Barry pulled no punches in criticising the poor hygiene standards of the ‘Lady of the Lamp’ and in the over-crowded conditions which existed in her hospital at Scutari. The mortality rates were horrific, and Barry was appalled.

Barry’s prowess as a doctor was  reflected in the fact that her own hospital had the best survival rate of any hospital during the Crimean War.

In time Barry served in garrisons from Africa to the Caribbean, and from Mauritius to St Helena. In 1857 she was posted to Canada. Having achieved the rank of Inspector General of Hospitals Barry was forced to retire because of ill health in 1864, and failed to be rewarded with the traditional knighthood which that status would normally have earned. Presumably she had upset too many people along the way – been arrested, demoted, or gone absent without leave on too many occasions.

She returned to Britain with her loyal house-servant but caught dysentery the following year. Knowing that she was dying she  gave strict instructions that no post mortem was to be carried out. But when she died her body had to be laid out for burial. The astonished char woman who was called in to wash the body was named Sophia Bishop. She soon realized things were ‘not as they should be’ – that the corpse was in fact ‘a whole woman’ and one whose stretch marks suggested had actually had a child. (This perhaps explains an absence of a year in around 1819, when she reputedly went to Mauritius and had a still-born child, possibly by Lord Charles Somerset).

Sophia kept quiet until after the funeral, and then her comments  were hushed up, since the army wanted to avoid a scandal, and the true story remained hidden from view for a century.

 Dr Barry and John the  faithful manservant in 1862.

It is incredible to think of someone spending her entire adult life in deception; she was the first woman in this country to qualify and practice as a medical doctor, and she ‘pulled the wool over the eys of the Army authorities’ for nearly half a century. I am torn between admiration for her sheer guts and determination, and respect for the loyalty of her devoted servant John. He returned to Jamaica after Barry died, and apparently never uttered a word about what had happened. You don’t get that sort of loyalty from staff nowadays…

Errata: I am grateful to Cobus Bester for pointing out an error in the post as originally drafted – the  General JBM Herzog who went on to become Prime Minister was born in 1876 and was therefore presumably the son (?) of the man born by Cesarean section.

10 thoughts on “Dr James Barry – a most remarkable man, born 1795, died 1865.”

  1. An amazing story. I do believe that truth is so often stranger and more enthralling than fiction. With fiction, however, we need not hurt quite as much for the injustices suffered by people as we often do with real stories.
    It does seem very strange that it took authorities so long to latch on to the idea that one had to keep hospitals clean.
    Re: the knighthood.. another reason why she didn’t receive one might be that her gender was suspected and one couldn’t knight a female.

  2. Hah, I’ve always said that Florence Nightingale was over-rated, she came in for a lot of criticism from Mary Seacole too, I believe, a most remarkable woman in her own right.
    A fascinating story which I knew only a bit about, masterfully done, thank you

    1. As far as I can see most of the stuff written about Florence Nightingale being a saviour is hogwash! But on the other hand she did popularise the pie-chart most effectively, and deserves to be remembered for that, if nothing else! Whenever I see a pie-chart being used to demonstrate market segmentation etc I think of Flo.!

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  4. Dr. Wesley James Barry

    Interesting story of overcoming sexual bias of the times. She lived about the same time as my great grandfather James Laurence Barry (1834-1916) also from County Cork.

  5. A remarkable person, but your reference regarding the birth of Gen. JBM Hertzog is incorrect. Hertzog was born in the year after Dr Barry’s death. I believe he was named after her because she delivered one of his ancestors. Dr Barry died in 1865, Hertzog was born in 1866.

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