James Barry (b. 1792-1795 – d. 25 July 1865), was a military surgeon in the British Army. Documentary evidence indicates that it is likely that Barry was biologically female, born Margaret Ann Bulkley, and hence the first biologically female Briton to become a qualified medical doctor.[1][2]

After graduation from the University of Edinburgh, Barry served in India and Cape Town, South Africa. By the end of his career, he had risen to the rank of Inspector General in charge of military hospitals. In his travels he not only improved conditions for wounded soldiers, but also the conditions of the native inhabitants. Among his accomplishments was the first successful caesarean section in Africa; both the mother and child survived the operation.[2]

Although Barry lived his adult life as a man, his biological sex is disputed. It is widely believed that Barry was born female and chose to live as a man so that he might be accepted as a university student and be able to pursue his chosen career as a surgeon.[2] It has also been theorized that he was intersexed.[3]

Early life

The exact date of Barry's birth is uncertain; some sources put the date at 1792,[3][4] while others list the year as 1795,[5] or even 1789.[1]

Information about Barry's past has been rife with myth and speculation. Evidence indicates that Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley in Ireland, the child of Jeremiah and Mary-Ann Bulkley,[1] who was the sister of the celebrated Irish artist and professor of painting at London's Royal Academy, also named James Barry. Letters reveal a conspiracy between Barry's mother and some of his uncle's influential, liberal-minded friends to get him into and through medical school.[1]

Medical training

Barry was accepted into the University of Edinburgh as a 'literary and medical student' in 1809. Research by duPreez identified documentary evidence, in the form of a financial record from the family solicitor, that Margaret Bulkley travelled with her mother to Edinburgh by sea at the end of November 1809.[1] A letter by James Barry to the same solicitor, sent on 14 December, in which he asks for any letters for him to be forwarded to Mrs Bulkley, mentions that ' was very usefull [sic] for Mrs. Bulkley (my aunt) to have a Gentleman to take care of her on Board Ship and to have one in a strange country...', indicating that this was when the change of gender was made. Although the letter was signed by Barry, the solicitor wrote on the back of the envelope 'Miss Bulkley, 14 December’.[1]

Barry qualified with a Medical Doctorate in 1812, then moved back to London. Here he signed up for the Autumn Course 1812/1813 as a pupil of the United Hospitals of Guy’s and St Thomas'.[1] On July 2, Barry successfully took the examination for the Royal College of Surgeons of England, subsequently qualifying as a Regimental Assistant.[1]


Barry was commissioned as a Hospital Assistant with the British Army on July 6, 1813, taking up posts in Chelsea and then the Royal Military Hospital in Plymouth, where he was promoted to Assistant Staff Surgeon.[1] He might have served in the Battle of Waterloo (June 18, 1815)[citation needed]. After that he served in India and then in South Africa. He arrived in Cape Town between 1815 and 1817.

In a couple of weeks he became the Medical Inspector for the colony. During his stay, he arranged for a better water system for Cape Town and performed one of the first known successful Caesarean sections - the boy was christened James Barry Munnik. He also gained enemies by criticizing local handling of medical matters. He left Cape Town in 1828.

His next postings included Mauritius in 1828, Trinidad and Tobago and the island of Saint Helena. In Saint Helena he got into trouble for leaving for England unannounced. Later he served in Malta, Corfu, the Crimea, Jamaica and in 1831, Canada.

By this time he had reached the rank of Inspector General, H.M. Army Hospitals. However, during his next posting in Saint Helena he got into trouble with the internal politics of the island, was arrested and sent to home and demoted to Staff Surgeon. His next posting was the West Indies in 1838.

In the West Indies he concentrated on medicine, management and improving the conditions of the troops and was later promoted to Principal Medical Officer. In 1845, Barry contracted yellow fever and left for England for sick leave in October.

Barry was posted to Malta on November 2, 1846. Within a month of his arrival he took a seat in the local church that was reserved for the clergy and was severely reprimanded. During his stay he had to deal with a threat of a cholera epidemic that eventually arrived in 1850.

He left Malta for Corfu in 1851 with the rank of Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals. He left Corfu in 1857 for Canada as a Inspector-General of Hospitals. In that position, he fought for better food, sanitation and proper medical care for prisoners and lepers, as well as soldiers and their families.

James Barry retired in 1864 — reputedly against his wishes — and returned to England.

He died from dysentery July 25, 1865 and apparently the charwoman who took care of the body, Sophia Bishop, was the first to discover his female body, and revealed the truth after the funeral. Afterwards many people claimed to "have known it all along". The British Army sealed all records for 100 years.[2]

He was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery with the only name he was ever known by and with full rank. His manservant John subsequently returned to Jamaica.


Barry was not always a pleasant fellow to be around. He could be tactless, impatient, argumentative and opinionated. He reputedly fought a couple of duels when someone commented on his voice, features, or professionalism. He was punished many times for insubordination and discourteous behavior but often received lenient sentences. During the Crimean War (1854 - 1856), he got into an argument with Florence Nightingale.[citation needed]

He appears to have had a good bedside manner and professional skill.[citation needed] He tried to improve sanitary conditions wherever he went and improve the conditions and diet of the common soldier. He reacted indignantly to unnecessary suffering. His insistence to better conditions of poor and commoners annoyed his peers. He was a vegetarian and teetotaler and reputedly recommended wine baths for some patients. His dogs and a black manservant named John were his constant companions.

In popular culture

Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris has begun work on a film based on Barry's life, entitled Heaven and Earth,[6] which is set to begin shooting in the UK on December 10, 2008 before moving to Cape Town in January 2009. Set in 1825 in the Cape, the film tells of a secret love affair between Barry (played by Natascha McElhone) and Lord Charles Somerset (James Purefoy).[7] Barry has previously been played by Anna Massey in an episode of the BBC drama-documentary A Skirt Through History.[8]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 Hercules Michael du Preez (2008-01-14). Dr James Barry: The early years revealed. South African Medical Journal, Vol 98, No 4 (2008). SAMJ. Retrieved on 2008-04-03.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Pain, Stephanie (2008-03-06). The 'male' military surgeon who wasn't. Retrieved on 2008-03-16.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Kubba, A. K (2001). "The Life, Work and Gender of Dr James Barry MD". Proc R Coll Physicians Edinb 31: 352–356. Retrieved on 2007-12-15. 
  4. Leitch, Robert (2001-07-01). The Barry Room: The Tale Of A Pioneering Military Surgeon. Retrieved on 2007-12-14.
  5. James Barry Biography. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Retrieved on 2007-12-23.
  6. IMDB entry
  7. Screen International
  8. A Skirt Through History: An Experiment. BFI Film & TV Database. British Film Institute. Retrieved on 2008-06-19.

Further reading

  • Beukes, Lauren: Maverick:Extraordinary Women From South Africa's Past, ISBN 0-177-00705-0
  • Duncker, Patricia: James Miranda Barry (historical fiction), ISBN 0-330-37169-X
  • Duncker, Patricia: The Doctor, ISBN 0-006-00904-1
  • Holmes, Rachel: Scanty Particulars: The Scandalous Life and Astonishing Secret of James Barry, Queen Victoria's Most Eminent Military Doctor ISBN 0-375-5055-6
  • Kronenfeld, Anne and Ivan: The Secret Life of Dr. James Miranda Barry (historical fiction) ISBN 3-978-15943109
  • Racster, Olga: Dr. James Barry: Her secret story
  • Rae, Isobel: The Strange Story of Dr. James Barry: Army Surgeon, Inspector-General of Hospitals, Discovered on Death to be a Woman
  • Robb, Colin Johnston: The Woman Who Won Fame in the British Army as a Man (article published in The Northern Whig and Belfast Post, Friday, November 16, 1846)
  • Rose, June: The Perfect Gentleman ISBN 0-00912684-0
  • Town, Florida Ann: With a Silent Companion (historical fiction for ages 12–16), ISBN 0-88995-211

External links

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