I am publishing Dr. James Barry’s post today, Jan 28, even though we do not truly know the day he was born. Over his life, Dr. Barry changed the “when” as often as the “where”, but historians believe it must have been today.
A military surgeon in the British Army, Barry served in South Africa before rising the ranks, culminating in Inspector General, the highest military medical rank. He opened military hospitals across the British Empire, often defying austerity orders by the Crown, and was generally not an easy person to work with if you were his commanding officer.
Throughout his career, uncommon for this time, to say the least, Barry battled the chain of military command and the Throne in his conquest to end unsanitary conditions, maltreatment of lower ranking soldiers and locals, malnourishment, and more. Despite being acerbic, demanding, and unwavering in his conquest to better military medicine and the conditions for those that sought it out, he was promoted quickly and often, sometimes to “get rid of the bugger” but often because his methods prove effective and cost saving.
That’s not to say it was all smooth sailing. More than once the Chain of Command and at least twice by order of the Crown he was arrested and demoted in rank for his no-prisoners attitude. He was teetotal, a vegetarian, actual friends with his servant, John, a black man from Jamaica, who he insisted would need to receive the same accommodation and consideration as Barry himself.
But, even though he was an anachronism, a modern man in an archaic society, a commensurate scientist, a nutrition and military reformer, and probably the only person ever to be demoted nine times to wind up at the highest rank a military officer could hold… that wasn’t even close to the whole story.
James Barry was born the second child into a wealthy family, his uncle was the celebrated artist James Barry himself. Up until around his sixth birthday, at least, when anti-catholic sentiment ended his father’s career. And that’s when things got a little convoluted.
Barry was, in fact, born Margaret Ann Bulkley. When he was 14, a third child joined the family, Juliana. Despite being listed as Barry’s younger sister, it is now thought that Juliana was his daughter, a result of childhood abuse by a distant relative.
At age 16 it became clear, that the young girl from Cork would have a hard time finding a position as tutor, too acerbic were her ways and too aggressive her views. This is about the time at which a great conspiracy seems to have taken place, aided by James Barry’s uncle, the elder James Barry, a liberal and very influential man before his passing.
Together with Barry’s (the elder, since deceased) friends, documents were changed and Margaret Ann Bulkley became James Barry under the tutorship of General Francisco de Miranda, a military leader and revolutionary from Venezuela.
Historians believe that Barry’s repeated changing of his birth year and location were both a tool to hide his true identity and to explain his youthful and feminine looks. Others think, that Barry was aware, in later years, that he would “age out” of the military and tried to prolong this as much as possible. Both are probably not wrong.
Now known officially as James Barry, he moved to Edinburgh in 1809 to enter medical college, a subject of studies not open to women at the time. He received his MD in 1812, one year later than planned as he was brilliant in some subjects but failed others, and returned to London. There he enrolled into the surgical courses and passed examination on July 2 1813, making him a surgical specialist.
Only four days later, July 6th, he enrolled in the Army. Citing religious concerns and aided by a letter from one of General Francisco de Miranda’s friends, an officer in the British Army, he avoided the customary body inspection and received dispensation to dress and shower alone.
In 1815 he was promoted (after having been demoted once and promoted twice) to lieutenant (Assistant Surgeon). Six months later he shipped out to Cape Town, where he wrote into his only preserved diary about the horrors of bad hygiene, unsanitary conditions, slavery, and appalling treatment of women and girls.
Another one of Barry’s co-conspirators, the Lord Buchan, had written a letter of introduction to the local Governor, Lord Charles Somerset, with whom Barry began a cordial but distant acquaintanceship until the Lord’s daughter fell ill and Barry performed surgery which, against the worries of all other physicians, not only saved her life but restored her “so fully she was able to walk and talk just days later.”
From this resulted a friendship so deep, General Somerset not only promoted Barry to Colonel Medical Inspector (a rise of nine grades), he also invited him to live with the Somerset family and become his personal physician. At the time it was suggested, rather openly, that Somerset and Barry had a homosexual relationship, since Barry often spent the night with the General. If the General was aware of Barry’s sex, he never let on and weathered the accusations of homosexuality (an act illegal in Britain at the time that could have led to both’ court-martial and imprisonment).
Awarded great power and influence, Barry set out to change things. He ended a number of practices in the treatment of enslaved people, mandating three meals a day and one rest day, reformed prisons, and built the first humane hospital for the mentally ill, requiring the admission of everyone, local or Brit, man or woman, and their “fair and healthsome treatment.”
He built a hospital for leprosy and one for expectant mothers, performing the first known cesarean section in which both mother and child survived.
After his following promotion to Surgeon of the Forces, the Army stationed him at Mauritius, a post Barry abandoned to go AWOL twice in order to tend to his friend, the now ailing and dying Somerset. Somerset died in 1831, after which Barry returned to Mauritius to find an angry note and a penal transfer and demotion to Jamaica and later St. Helena.
On Saint Helena, angered by the unsanitary conditions common soldiers were forced to live in, James Barry “struck and struck again” a commanding officer. He was court-martialled but honorably acquitted after showing the negative impact such living conditions had on Forces Readiness.
Since Barry could not continue under the commanding officer, he was transferred and promoted again (to Principal Medical Officer), this time to the Leeward Islands where he continued his quest to improve sanitation, the treatment of locals, and medical services for the underserviced and women and girls.
He contracted Yellow Fever in 1845 and briefly returned to Britain. After returning and being posted on Malta, he was once again court-martialled, this time for taking a seat on a church bench reserved for clergy, demoted, and later re-promoted when the Cholera Epidemic broke out in 1850.
He was promoted and moved to Corfu after another disagreement over the treatment of enslaved laborers with a superior officer. Except for a short deployment to the Crimea, during which Barry openly fought and had loud disagreements with Florence Nightingale, he remained there until 1857, vastly improving local healthcare, sanitation, women’s rights within the medical system.
His reputation as a brute, a loud and boisterous soldier who nevertheless became soft and displayed superior skill and bedside manners as a surgeon, was cemented during this trip as well, when he won a pistol duel against a 21st Dragoons Captain, then considered the best pistol duelist in the Crimea.
While he had many fans, Nightingale wasn’t one. This isn’t the only person, The Mother Of Nurses had feuds with, Elizabeth Blackwell (February 3, 1821 – May 31, 1910) famously had hers with Nightingale as well. For all her care and love she displayed towards her patients, she could be hard-headed and somewhat dismissive towards men and physicians, both of which she considered beneath her station as a true healer. Barry, to her, was both. After his death she wrote to Parthenope Verney that “After “he” was dead, I was told that (Barry) was a woman. […] I should say that (Barry) was the most hardened creature I ever met“.
His final deployment was to Canada, where he was promoted to Inspector General, the highest rank available to a medical officer, and used his power to improve food choices, nutrition, sanitation, and medical care for soldiers and prisoners.
His final years
On July 19, 1859, six military police tried, but failed, to enforce the Army mandated retirement of Barry. But, try as he may, his age and ill health had necessitated this step, and he returned from Canada, together with John, his servant, to lead a quiet life.
His body was found on 26 July 1865, dead from gastroenteritis. John was nowhere to be found, it is assumed he was given money to return to Jamaica.
The embalmer, a woman working as a midwife and charwoman, discovered Barry’s biological gender and signs of pregnancy and delivery, and, after unsuccessfully trying to blackmail the Army and Barry’s physician, Major McKinnon, sent a letter to newspapers. Thus, Barry’s secret was out, but funnily, no one cared.
Few physicians, men or women, have done as much for the health of the British Colonies, the rights of women, girls, the enslaved, common soldiers, and patients as Dr. James Barry. Few had as colorful and as exciting a life as him, and even fewer made it all the way to the top despite their beefs and personality.
Barry was the first transgender physician, the first biologically female physician in command within the British Forces, and probably the biggest asshole with the chops and skills behind him to back up his personality. Yet, millions of people remember him fondly, including the former Prime Minister of South Africa, JB Hertzog. The JB standing for “James Barry” a name inherited from his father who was the child Barry delivered by cesarean section.