The Transvestite Surgeon

Dr James Barry studied at Edinburgh and qualified with a Medical Doctorate. He entered the army and had a sterling career there. But not all things were as they seemed at the time. Who was Dr James Barry?

In 1809, a young man freshly arrived from Ireland entered Edinburgh University as a literary and medical student. He qualified with a Medical Doctorate in 1812 and moved to London where friends of his uncle the painter James Barry lived. His uncle had been a well-known Irish artist and professor for painting at London’s Royal Academy until his death in 1806. In London, Barry signed up for a course with the United Hospitals of Guy’s and St. Thomas’. In 1813, he passed the examination for the Royal College of Surgeons of England and qualified as a Regimental Assistant. 

With stops in Chelsea and Plymouth, he was first posted to India and then to South Africa. He arrived in Cape Town for the first time in 1815 and again in 1824. He was promoted Medical Inspector for the colony within weeks of this arrival and stayed until 1828. In his time in the colony, he revolutionized Cape Town’s water supply, undertook one of the first successful Cesarean sections (mother and child both survived) in 1826, and made a general pest of himself criticizing local medical matters. His local enemies were numerous and they all pounced on the scandal when he was accused of having a homosexual relationship with the colony's governor Lord Charles Henry Somerset. 

From his first Cape Town posting, he was then sent to Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago, and finally Saint Helena, followed by a curious gap in his records for the year 1819 where he virtually disappeared from all records. In Saint Helena in 1817, James Barry was called to attend the son of the Comte de Las Cases in the retinue of Emperor Napoleon. The Count wrote the following in his diary: “I received a visit from one of the captains of our station at St Helena. Knowing the state of my son's health, he brought a medical gentleman along with him. This was a mark of attention on his part, but the introduction occasioned for some moments, a curious misunderstanding. I mistook the Captain's medical friend for his son or nephew. The grave Doctor, who was presented to me was a boy of 18, with the form, the manners and the voice of a woman. But Mr Barry (such was his name) was described to be an absolute phenomenon. I was informed that he had obtained his diploma at the age of 13, after the most rigid examination, and that he had performed extraordinary cures at the Cape.” 

Dr James Barry's further postings included Jamaica, Canada, Malta, and Corfu. When he requested being sent to the Crimea during the Crimean War, he was refused. Instead, he took a holiday and embarked to Cyprus, from where he sailed to the Crimea and did what he wanted. That meant, mainly making a pest of himself over the food and sanitary dispositions in the field hospitals as well as the food served there. He met Florence Nightingale and the two loathed each other on sight, while appreciating the other’s work and dedication. 

Dr James Barry was made to retire in 1864 from his posting in Corfu and died in London in 1865. The charwoman preparing the body for the funeral discovered the true sex of the corpse as well as signs that this woman had born a child. Still, Dr James Barry was buried under this name at Kensal Green Cemetery. But what had been going on prior to 1809? 

In 1789, Margaret Ann Bulkley was born as the daughter of Jeremiah and Mary-Ann Bulkley in Ireland. Mary-Ann was the sister of painter James Barry. When Mary-Ann’s life slithered into chaos with her husband in prison for fraud and her son married and with a family to look after, she had to take steps to safeguard her and her daughter’s livelihood. Upon contacting some friends of her brother’s in London (namely the Beaufort family), she and her daughter planned a trip to Edinburgh. 

The day of the ship’s departure saw Mrs Bulkley embark with her nephew James Barry but without her daughter. A letter sent by the young Mr James Barry to the Bulkley solicitor back home mentioned the great comfort his aunt had taken from being accompanied by a young gentleman. Solicitors are sticklers for details, and the solicitor therefore noted on the back of the envelope ‘Miss Bulkley’. It’s the one thing that links the disappearance of Margaret Ann Bulkley to the sudden appearance of James Barry. 

Don’t take my time line at face value; I tried to make sense out of many contradictory accounts and publications. None of them is absolutely straight in their time line and often contradict each other. I was left a bit floundering. As an example, the Manchester Gazette of 1865 reported Dr James Barry’s death as having occurred on Corfu. 

Unhappily, Dr James Barry is remembered for all the wrong reasons with that scandal surfacing immediately after the funeral. What he should be remembered for was his ideas on and lifelong battle for better hygiene and better food in hospitals and in the army in general, strict control on quacks, doctors and pharmacists and their pharmaceutical products, and the accessibility of medical care for the local population irrespective of race and nationality. It's a fight she would still be fighting.

Further reading
Robert Koch: With System Against Disease
The First Family of Science: The Piccard Scientists
The Invention of George Eliot