Obit of the Day (Historical): Dr. James Barry (1865)
When Dr. James Barry, British military physician, died of dysentary (or perhaps typhiod) on July 25, 1865, he was laid out for burial by a servant, as was the custom. Much to the charwoman’s surprise, the doctor was biologically a woman. A women who had also been pregnant at one time.
Dr. Barry’s past is a cloudy one. His date of birth cannot be accurately pinpointed, but it is often given as 1795 or 1792. He appears in education records suddenly in 1809 as a first-year student the the University of Edinburgh Medical School. He graduated in 1812, although he was nearly denied his degree because of his youth (17-20 years of age at the time). He then joined the British Army.
As with many soldiers at the peak of the British Empire, Dr. Barry was stationed throughout the world. His first posting of any length was at the Cape Colony (now Capetown, South Africa) where he earned a reputation for his medical skill and administrative ability. He made special point of inspecting troop garrisons and instituting policies that increased the health of the men stationed at the colony.
Even with all his success, Dr. Barry had trouble with authority and lost his rank on occasion. His lowest point occurred in 1838 when disagreements with commanding officers on Jamaica cost him his position, saw him placed in handcuffs and removed from the island by force.
By the time of the outbreak of the Crimean War, Dr. Barry had regained his rank of Deputy Inspector of Hospitals and was serving on the island of Corfu. He reputation was burnished by his significant survival rate of war wounded, losing only 17 patients out of 462 transported to the island. (In contrast the horrific Scutari Hospital, in Turkey, had soldiers dying at a rate of 20 per day.)
It was during a visit to Scutari that Dr. Barry met Florence Nightingale who was reforming the infamous medical facility and would earn her own fame among the British. According to contemporary accounts the two had a mutual dislike for each other from the moment they met.
This personality conflict likely ended up with Nightingale influencing the military to ship Dr. Barry to Canada in 1857. Although he received a promotion to Inspector-General of Hospital for the entire country (equivalent in rank to a brigadier general), he was still far from the more active parts of the Empire.
However Dr. Barry threw himself into his work and once again improved living conditions among the soldiers, most notably by reducing rates of alcoholism. (He also created barracks for married couples, who, prior to Dr. Barry, slept alongside unmarried soldiers.)
Dr. Barry was semi-retired by Army command in 1859 when he was sickened by a bout of influenza. He would spend the rest of his life in seclusion in the Marlyebone neighborhood of London with his dog “Psyche.” (He owned several dogs during his lifetime, all with the same name.)
Upon Dr. Barry’s death, at approximately the age of 70, his secret was exposed. Close friends, associates, and military leadership all wondered how Dr. Barry could avoid detection for more than 50 years of service. Some claimed to have “known all along,” but others were astounded, including his personal physician who wrote Dr. Barry’s death certificate.
Dr. Barry also managed to take precautions, specifically avoiding barracks living for himself. In 1829, he took an unscheduled leave of absence from his post in the British West Indies. When asked about it by his commanding officer, Dr. Barry said he had returned to London for a haircut. Some scholars now believe that the return to England was precipitated by Dr. Barry’s well-hidden pregnancy.
The British Army sealed Dr. Barry’s records for 100 years after his death, but Isobel Rae, a British historian, was able to access them in the 1950s. Through her research it was determined that Dr. Barry was most likely Margaret Ann Bulkley. What is not known is whether Dr. Barry lived as a man simply to have the opportunity to work as a physician - a position denied to most women at the time, or if he was expressing his gender identity. (There is a theory that Dr. Barry was born intersex but that appears to be a minority opinion.)
Dr. James Barry is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in London with full rank.
Sources: BBC News, Biographical Dictionary of Canada, USMedicine.com (via WayBack Machine), Wikipedia
(Image of Dr. James Barry with his manservant John and Barry’s dog Psyche, c. 1862 courtesy of Wikimedia.org)