The following post was originally written for the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association (FWSA), and appeared as part of their historical groundbreakers series. Click here to view it in its original context.
Few are more deserving of the epithet ‘groundbreaking’ than James Miranda Barry. A medical pioneer of the early 1800s, Barry broke new ground by campaigning for the rights of patients, (particularly the marginalised and oppressed) and recognising the importance of public health, including diet and sanitation. He also courageously performed one of the first successful Caesarean sections known to Western medicine – more than twenty years before the advent of anaesthesia for such invasive procedures. James Barry was also extraordinary in another, rather unexpected, way; for on his death bed, he was pronounced to be a woman.
After Barry died during an epidemic of chronic diarrhoea in 1865, the maidservant or nurse who prepared the body (Sophia Bishop) went on to attest that Barry was, in actual fact, a “perfect female”. Although many in the military bridled at the suggestion, the rumour quickly made its way into the papers.
Unsurprisingly, Barry’s story proved captivating in the decades to come. In the 1880s it inspired a triple-decker potboiler – The Modern Sphinx – penned by Colonel Edward Rogers (who had once met Barry); it also featured in Havelock Ellis’ Studies in the Psychology of Sex, cited as an example of the “homosexual diathesis”. Barry’s story has continued to fascinate, impressing academics interested in gender and queer theory.
Yet despite this enduring interest in Barry’s life, the story of one of Britain’s most compelling medical pioneers has nevertheless failed to penetrate mainstream culture. Elizabeth Blackwell and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson continue to be cited as the first women to qualify as doctors, despite the fact that Barry (albeit under the guise of a man) may have achieved it around fifty years earlier.
It is important to qualify this statement with ‘may’, for Barry’s sex still remains unproved and disputed. Whilst many commentators have explicitly recorded that Barry was a female ‘passing’ as a man throughout her life, other theories have emerged. In her recent biography of Barry, Rachel Holmes proposes that Barry may have been intersexed. Indeed, the doctor who certified to Barry’s death countered Sophia Bishop’s claims with the defence that Barry was – at most – a hermaphrodite (though Hurwitz and Richardson once branded this simply as the “accepted apologia”).
It seems that whilst Barry can unequivocally be regarded as a ‘groundbreaker’, to position Barry as a female groundbreaker is somewhat more contentious. Even if we disregard the intersex, or hermaphroditic, hypotheses, and claim Barry was a woman in ‘disguise’, can one really argue that she broke new ground for women when she lived and worked as a man, and never publicly revealed her identity? Moreover, would it be appropriate to call her a female groundbreaker when she chose to live as a man?
Whilst some accounts of Barry’s life refer to the surgeon as ‘he’, others use ‘she’. In her biography, Holmes gestures towards this niggling problem posed by pronouns. Due to the dearth of private writing, we can never be sure which one Barry would have preferred; it remains difficult to say whether Barry identified as a man or a woman. Further, due to the lack of post-mortem examination, it is also impossible to say whether Barry was a man, a woman or intersexed.
Nevertheless, I have chosen to include Barry’s narrative in this series on groundbreaking women. I am well aware of the considerable problems that this poses, not least the fact that I – as with many other critics – have clearly placed Barry’s narrative within a broader framework, despite not in full possession of the facts or Barry’s own personal preferences. Nevertheless, I believe that situating Barry in this series is worthwhile, for it serves to both bring her story to a wider audience and generate debates about sex and gender. Regardless of whether Barry was or was not a woman, her legacy as a cross-dressing woman – and the subsequent criticism – may help to break new ground.
Initially it seems as though the myths that circulate about Barry threaten to obscure the details of an extraordinary career, one which spanned both continents and disciplines. Barry’s career as a military surgeon began with a posting in the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, and culminated with one in Canada – by way of Jamaica, the West Indies, Malta and Corfu. Barry eventually climbed the ranks to become Inspector General of Hospitals, the most senior position in her chosen profession.
Contrary to modern medicine’s increasing specialisation, Barry also worked across specialties to benefit both servicemen and civilians. From researching experimental treatments for syphilis, to treating tropical diseases and tackling drunkenness and poor sanitation, Barry enjoyed an incredibly varied medical career. She fought to regulate the sale of medicines in the Cape, asserted her right to help soldiers injured in the Crimea, and, in St Helena, established the island’s first process of organised vaccination. The successful C-section – now regarded as the apotheosis of Barry’s achievements – is just one of many exciting and innovative projects upon which Barry embarked.
Inevitably, public fascination has often tended towards Barry’s personal life instead. While Barry never married, Sophia Bishop made the sensational assertion that her body bore evidence of childbirth. The one relationship which has most entranced commentators is probably that which Barry enjoyed with Lord Charles Somerset, the governor in the Cape. Barry was the Somerset’s family doctor and member of the household, as well as a close personal friend of the man (despite their disparate political views). Barry even tended to Somerset on his deathbed. The intimacy between the pair led to an extremely public accusation that the two were practising a homosexual affair. The apparent irony of this allegation should in no way undermine what must have been a very difficult experience for Barry, Somerset, and the latter’s wife, in an era in which homosexual activity was still punishable by death.
Barry also enjoyed notable relationships with a number of other luminaries of the Regency and Victorian age; she trained under the celebrated surgeon and anatomist Sir Astley Cooper; and enjoyed the patronage of aristocrat and art collector Lord Buchan, and General Francisco Miranda, the Venezuelan revolutionary. Barry claimed these men as mentors through her connection to the painter James Barry; although her origins are hazy (even her date of birth is unknown), she seems to have been the niece (or nephew) of the artist.
Whilst Barry’s origins have proved difficult to trace, evidence seems to suggest she began life as Margaret Bulkley. It is thought that her ‘transformation’ took place sometime during adolescence, before she began studying at Edinburgh University.
During her adult life, Barry was a notoriously difficult person, allegedly making as many enemies as friends. Biographies of Barry catalogue a number of professional hostilities, which culminated in two arrests and a court martial while she was based in St Helena. There are also records of a difficult exchange with Florence Nightingale – the nurse would remember Barry as a “blackguard” and “the most hardened creature” she ever met.
The probing interest in Barry’s personal life has also focused on her apparently eccentric personality. Barry is noted as a dandified dresser and a rumoured duellist; someone who combined a love of socialising with virtual teetotalism; and a strict vegetarian. Inevitably, after her death, many clamoured to suggest that there had always been something ‘androgynous’ or ‘effeminate’ about Barry’s looks and personality. One story even arose about a couple of doctors discovering her female form whilst she was suffering from yellow fever.
Barry has proved a compelling subject for reasons other than her idiosyncrasies – she was also something of a humanitarian, and in this, as in other ways, she seems to truly deserve the moniker ‘groundbreaking’. Barry was a pro-abolitionist (which must have made many of her postings difficult), who allegedly bought the freedom of two slaves. She cared for the plight of those marginalised by nineteenth-century society, including those suffering from leprosy (and their families) and convicted prisoners. In St Helena, Barry established a new hospital for women and introduced daily surgeries for the poor. She also demonstrated compassion and empathy in calling for reforms to the arrangements for married quarters in army barracks.
It is clear that Barry’s achievements are considerable regardless of whether she (or he) was a woman, a man, or – as Holmes posits – something “betwixt and between”. One could argue that these circuitous debates only serve to obscure what was an extraordinary life.
Yet to discount questions of sex and gender is also problematic, for it eschews some revealing (and arguably necessary) debates. Barry’s legacy as a cross-dresser is in itself ripe for exploration. For instance, it is interesting to note the type of myths that circulated after the deathbed ‘revelation’. Particularly popular were the rumours that Barry had dressed as a man to pursue an erstwhile lover, to escape a brutish husband, or (somewhat more convincing, in my opinion) to pursue a profession from which she would otherwise have been barred.
This in itself is incredibly telling, for it points towards the considerable struggles women faced in making inroads into the medical (and military) profession. In 1812 – when Barry received her diploma – qualifying as a female doctor was impossible. It was not until 1876 that Britain passed an act permitting women to enter the medical profession, and Barry’s success came almost one hundred years before the Royal College of Surgeons even accepted its first female Fellow by examination. Barry’s story, then, can be interpreted as a wonderful act of defiance, disproving long-held hypotheses about women’s supposed unsuitability for the medical profession.
The legends about Barry are illuminating in other ways, showing the theories society promulgates for why a woman might dress as a man. Julie Wheelwright has placed Barry’s story in the context of other cross-dressing narratives, whilst cautioning against making generalisations. It is interesting that these stories (of women chasing lovers or a livelihood) have become the ‘accepted’ or ‘acceptable’ myths about why women might cross-dress. By searching out ‘practical’ explanations, we may avoid confronting more pressing questions about women might identify as male. Further, these pragmatic reasons may also explain why a woman dressing as a man (and indeed young girls exhibiting ‘tomboy’ traits) has been seen as more acceptable than the reverse.
While appreciating Barry’s distinctive and individual achievements, then, one is undeniably drawn to these questions about sex and gender identity. These readings need not be mutually exclusive, however; for one could argue that Barry’s ‘groundbreaking’ achievements in medicine are paralleled by the ‘groundbreaking’ legacy she left behind. Although this legacy is always in danger of being sensationalised, it should not be forgotten, for it is a rewarding field of investigation in its own right.
Ellis, Henry Havelock and John Addington Symonds, Studies in the Psychology of Sex: Vol. I, Sexual Inversion (London: Wilson and Macmillan, 1897)
Holmes, Rachel, Scanty Particulars: The Life of Dr James Barry (London: Penguin Books, 2003)
Hurwtiz, Brian and Ruth Richardson, “Inspector General James Barry MD: Putting the Woman in her Place”, British Medical Journal, Vol. 298, No. 6669 (Feb 4, 1989), pp. 299-305.
Wheelwright, Julie, Amazons and Military Maids (London: Pandora, 1989)