Military Wiki
James Barry
Dr James Barry (left) with a servant and his dog Psyche, c. 1862, Jamaica
Born c. 1789-1799
Died July 25, 1865(1865-07-25)
Other names Margaret Ann Bulkley
Occupation surgeon
Known for medical reforms, disputed gender

James Miranda Stuart Barry (c. 1789-1799 – 25 July 1865, born Margaret Ann Bulkley), was a military in the British Army. After graduation from the University of Edinburgh Medical School, 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 caesarean section in Africa by a British surgeon in which both the mother and child survived the operation.[1]

Although Barry lived his adult life as a man, it is believed that at birth he was identified or assigned as female and named Margaret Ann Bulkley, raised as a girl,[2] and that he chose to live as a man so that he might be accepted as a university student and able to pursue a career as a surgeon.[1] Thus Barry would be the first British woman to become a qualified medical doctor.[3]

Early life[]

Information about Barry's early life has been rife with myth and speculation; with no contemporary records known. The exact date of Barry's birth is uncertain; with sources putting the date at 1789,[3] 1792,[4][5] 1795,[6] or 1799.[7]

Evidence collected by Hercules Michael du Preez indicates that Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley in Ireland in 1789, the second child of Jeremiah and Mary-Ann Bulkley.[3] The child's mother was the sister of James Barry, a celebrated Irish artist and professor of painting at London's Royal Academy. However, family financial mismanagement left Mary-Ann and Margaret Bulkley without the support of either Jeremiah Bulkley (in prison) or their son John (married).[3] Letters during this time of financial hardship refer to a conspiracy between Mrs. Bulkley and some of her brother's influential, liberal-minded friends (as Francisco de Miranda, the famous Venezuelan revolutionary) to get the teenage Margaret into medical school.[3] A financial record from the family solicitor indicates that Mary-Ann and Margaret Bulkley travelled to Edinburgh by sea at the end of November 1809.[3] A letter to the same solicitor, sent on 14 December, in which 'James Barry' 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...', apparently indicating that the younger traveller had assumed this male identity upon embarking on the voyage. Although the letter was signed by Barry, the solicitor wrote on the back of the envelope 'Miss Bulkley, 14 December'.[3]

Following his 1809 arrival in Edinburgh, Barry began studies at the University of Edinburgh Medical School as a 'literary and medical student'. He qualified with an MD in 1812, then moved back to London. There he signed up for the Autumn Course 1812/1813 as a pupil of the United Hospitals of Guy’s and St Thomas'.[3] On 2 July 1813, Barry successfully took the examination for the Royal College of Surgeons of England, subsequently qualifying as a Regimental Assistant.[3]


Portrait of James Barry, painted circa 1813-1816

Barry was commissioned as a Hospital Assistant with the British Army on 6 July 1813, taking up posts in Chelsea and then the Royal Military Hospital in Plymouth, where he was promoted to Assistant Staff Surgeon.[3] He might have served in the Battle of Waterloo (18 June 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.

Barry's 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 home, and demoted to Staff Surgeon. His next posting was the West Indies in 1838.

In the West Indies Barry concentrated on medicine, management and improving the conditions of the troops. He was 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 2 November 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, which eventually broke out 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 an 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 on 25 July 1865. Sophia Bishop, the charwoman who took care of the body, examined his anatomy and revealed this information after the funeral. The situation came to light after an exchange of letters between George Graham of the General Register Office, and Major D. R. McKinnon, Barry's doctor and the person who had issued the death certificate on which Barry was identified as male. [8]


It has been stated to me that Inspector-General Dr James Barry, who died at 14 Margaret Street on 25 July 1865, was after his death found to be female. As you furnished the Certificate as to the cause of his death, I take the liberty of asking you whether what I have heard is true, and whether you yourself ascertained that he was a woman and apparently had been a mother?

Perhaps you may decline answering these questions; but I ask them not for publication but for my own information.

Your faithful servant

George Graham

McKinnon's response was as follows:


I had been intimately acquainted with the doctor for good many years, both in London and the West Indies and I never had any suspicion that Dr Barry was a woman. I attended him during his last illness, (previously for bronchitis, and the affection for diarrhoea). On one occasion after Dr Barry’s death at the office of Sir Charles McGregor, there was the woman who performed the last offices for Dr Barry was waiting to speak to me. She wished to obtain some prerequisites of his employment, which the Lady who kept the lodging house in which Dr Barry died had refused to give him. Amongst other things she said that Dr Barry was a female and that I was a pretty doctor not to know this and she would not like to be attended by me. I informed him that it was none of my business whether Dr Barry was a male or a female, and that I thought that he might be neither, viz. an imperfectly developed man.She then said that she had examined the body, and was a perfect female and farther that there were marks of him having had a child when very young. I then enquired how have you formed that conclusion. The woman, pointing to the lower part of his stomach, said ‘from marks here. I am a maried [sic] woman and the mother of nine children and I ought to know.’

The woman seems to think that she had become acquainted with a great secret and wished to be paid for keeping it. I informed his that all Dr Barry’s relatives were dead, and that it was no secret of mine, and that my own impression was that Dr Barry was a Hermaphrodite. But whether Dr Barry was a male, female, or hermaphrodite I do not know, nor had I any purpose in making the discovery as I could positively swear to the identity of the body as being that of a person whom I had been acquainted with as Inspector-General of Hospitals for a period of years.

Yours faithfully,

D.R. McKinnon

Afterward many people claimed to have "known it all along". The British Army sealed all records for 100 years.[1] Historian Isobel Rae gained access to the army records in the 1950s, and concluded that Barry was the niece of James Barry the painter.[9] He was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery under the name James Barry and his full rank. His manservant John subsequently returned to Jamaica.


Barry was apparently not always a pleasant fellow to be around. His male persona 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 behaviour but often received lenient sentences. During the Crimean War (1854–1856), he got into an argument with Florence Nightingale.[7] After Barry's death Nightingale wrote that:[10]

I never had such a blackguard rating in all my life – I who have had more than any woman – than from this Barry sitting on his horse, while I was crossing the Hospital Square with only my cap on in the sun. He kept me standing in the midst of quite a crowd of soldiers, Commissariat, servants, camp followers, etc., etc., every one of whom behaved like a gentleman during the scolding I received while he behaved like a brute . . . After he was dead, I was told that (he) was a woman . . . I should say that (she) was the most hardened creature I ever met.

He appears to have had a good bedside manner and professional skill.[7] He tried to improve sanitary conditions wherever he went and improve the conditions and diet of the common soldier, by introducing the pear. He reacted indignantly to unnecessary suffering. His insistence on better conditions for poor and commoners annoyed his peers. He was a vegetarian and teetotaler and reputedly recommended wine baths for some patients. His manservant (named John) and his dogs 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.[9][11] 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).

The character of Barry has been played by Anna Massey in an episode of the BBC drama-documentary A Skirt Through History.[12]

His life is the subject of the historical novel James Miranda Barry (published in the USA as The Doctor) by Patricia Duncker.

The Canadian aspect of Barry's career was dramatised in an episode of the series Heritage Television, produced by then-independent superchannel CHCH in Hamilton, and hosted by Canadian historian Pierre Berton.

A 2004 play, Whistling Psyche by Sebastian Barry, imagines a meeting between James Barry and Florence Nightingale.[13]

A song by contemporary folk duo Gilmore & Roberts, Doctor James,[14] retells selected events from the life story of Doctor James Barry. The song was released on the album The Innocent Left on Navigator Records, October 2012.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Pain, Stephanie (6 March 2008). "The 'male' military surgeon who wasn't". Retrieved 16 March 2008. 
  2. "Five British heroes overlooked by history". BBC News. 17 November 2009. Retrieved 5 May 2010. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 3.9 Hercules Michael du Preez (14 January 2008). "Dr James Barry: The early years revealed". South African Medical Journal, Vol 98, No 4 (2008). South African Medical Journal. Retrieved 3 April 2008. 
  4. Kubba, A. K (2001). "The Life, Work and Gender of Dr James Barry MD" (PDF). pp. 352–356. PMID 11833588. Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 15 December 2007. 
  5. Leitch, Robert (1 July 2001). "The Barry Room: The Tale Of A Pioneering Military Surgeon". Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 14 December 2007. 
  6. "James Barry Biography". Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Retrieved 23 December 2007. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 [1] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography : "Barry, James (c.1799–1865)."
  8. Kubba, A. K.; Young, M (2001). "The Life Work and Gender of Dr James Barry MD". pp. 352–356. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 Maguire, Stephen (28 September 2008). "She's a beauty... and just perfect to play the role of the most amazing MALE doc ever; EXCLUSIVE HEARTACHE BEHIND NATASCHA'S SMILE.". Retrieved 28 April 2013. 
  10. Nightingale, Florence. Letter to Parthenope, Lady Verney (undated). London: Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine. 
  11. Heaven and Earth at the Internet Movie Database
  12. "A Skirt Through History: An Experiment". BFI Film & TV Database. British Film Institute. Retrieved 19 June 2008. 
  13. Lopaz, Andrea. Review of Whistling Psyche. CurtainUp, 2004.
  14. "Gilmore & Roberts 'Doctor James'". 'The Innocent Left'. Navigator Records. Retrieved 22 Nov 2012. 

Further reading[]

  • Beukes, Lauren: Maverick: Extraordinary Women from South Africa's Past, ISBN 1-77007-050-8
  • Brandon, Sydney: "Barry, James (c.1799–1865)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 accessed 4 Aug 2008; ODNB in notes.
  • du Preez, HM. "Dr James Barry (1789–1865): The Edinburgh Years". Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, 2012; 42:258–65.
  • Duncker, Patricia: James Miranda Barry (historical fiction), ISBN 0-330-37169-X
  • Duncker, Patricia: The Doctor, ISBN 0-06-019601-7
  • Holmes, Rachel: Scanty Particulars: The Scandalous Life and Astonishing Secret of James Barry, Queen Victoria's Most Eminent Military Doctor ISBN 0-375-50556-3 OCLC 49320500
  • Kronenfeld, Anne and Ivan: The Secret Life of Dr. James Miranda Barry (historical fiction) ISBN 1-59431-090-4
  • Ouellette, Sylvie: Le Secret du Docteur Barry (historical fiction) ISBN 978-2-89431-449-4 (Canada) and ISBN 978-2-812909-436 (France)
  • 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, 16 November 1846)
  • Rose, June: The Perfect Gentleman ISBN 0-09-126840-0
  • Town, Florida Ann: With a Silent Companion (historical fiction for ages 12–16), ISBN 0-88995-211-6

External links[]

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