British physician James Barry (c. 1795–1865) was a distinguished army surgeon, but achieved that professional rank by disguising herself as a man. She maintained the ruse from 1809, the year she entered medical school in Edinburgh, until the moments following her death, when a maid discovered her true gender. Barry's deception made her the first woman in British history to legitimately practice medicine.
The best guesses of Barry's true identity place her as the daughter of Mary Ann Bulkeley (or Bulkley in other sources), named Alice when she was born around 1795. Her mother was the sister of James Barry (1741–1806), an artist who enjoyed professional acclaim during his lifetime as one of Britain's first Romantic painters. Bulkeley was reportedly abandoned by her husband and left destitute, and her brother took her and her two daughters into his household. Barry's uncle and namesake had an impressive circle of friends that included British feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) and David Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan (1742–1829). Buchan, a Scottish aristocrat, was a progressive-minded agitator and a notable supporter of women's rights as well. When Barry's uncle died in 1806, Lord Buchan assumed responsibility for the 11-year-old niece.
Entered Medical School
Barry seems to have begun calling herself Miranda Barry, a name borrowed from another renowned family friend, General Francisco de Miranda (1750–1816), a Venezuelan revolutionary and French Revolution fighter. Miranda's home in London had a library rich in hard-to-find medical books, and he reportedly permitted Barry access to it whenever she liked. In 1809 she enrolled at the Edinburgh School of Medicine at the unusually young age of 14. But perhaps even more daring was the decision to mask her gender and dress as a boy. For a young woman of gifted intellect and an interest in science, nearly all professions would have been closed to her in this era, and even universities in Britain did not yet admit women. Medicine, in particular, was deemed far too gory a field, and in the discriminatory attitudes of the era, the male establishment pointed out that a woman physician might faint at a crucial moment when her life-saving skills were needed.
It is known that Barry spent her summer breaks at Buchan's Scottish estate, Dryburgh Abbey, and he probably helped in her ruse. After graduating in 1812, she went on to London for further study and training at St. Thomas's and Guy's hospitals, where one of her instructors was the famed surgeon Sir Astley Paston Cooper (1768–1841), best known for his advances in treating hernias and aneurysms. In 1813, by now firmly committed to presenting herself as a man, Barry made a bold move and joined an institution in which masculinity was firmly entrenched: the British Army. Applying to serve in its military medical corps, Barry likely knew that no extensive physical examination was required for doctor-applicants. It also seems likely that in the course of her long career, a few of her superiors may have known of her true identity, but for whatever reasons decided to protect her identity as well.
After a stint at an army camp in Plymouth, Barry was posted to Cape Town, South Africa, with the rank of Hospital Assistant and was soon promoted to Physician to the Governor's Household. The governor was Lord Charles Somerset (1767–1831), a widower, who was a friend of Buchan's and therefore may have known Barry was a woman. Furthermore, there were persistent rumors in Cape Town that the governor and the physician had an unnaturally close relationship, with the unspoken assumption that they were gay. Barry wore the clothing of a man of her rank and status, adding a red wig and three-inch heels to all footwear to boost her diminutive height of just five feet. She also carried the longest sword available, and quickly developed a reputation for being quick to anger, especially at slights to her masculinity or unnaturally high voice. Such comments usually resulted in an undue amount of trouble for her critic, and she was known to challenge many a fellow to a duel, though probably only participated in one.
Named in Libel Suit
It was not Barry's ruse that earned her trouble in Cape Town, however: it was her protestations against local quack doctors and the ineffective, even toxic, medicines sold by unlicensed pharmacists. Her attempts to have both professions better policed by the colonial government earned her some determined enemies. At one point, a piece of graffiti was written on a wall in which its author claimed to have witnessed an act of "buggery," a British term for sodomy, between Barry and Lord Somerset. A libel lawsuit ensued, which resulted in a great deal of publicity throughout the empire for both parties.
Barry seems to have disappeared for a time. She claimed to have spent time in Mauritius, an Indian Ocean island that was also a British colonial possession, between 1819 and 1820, but there are no official records of James Barry, physician, either there or elsewhere during these months. By November of 1821 she had returned to the Cape, but Somerset had remarried. With the scandal cooled, Barry was promoted again, this time to Colonial Medical Inspector in the Cape Colony. Again, her strong opinions and reformist zeal earned her enemies, for once she began touring the hospitals, prisons, asylums, and leper colonies under her jurisdiction, she was appalled by the conditions. At one hospital, for example, she found animals roaming freely about, including dogs, ducks, and pigeons. Barry proved to be slightly ahead of her time in her belief that proper sanitation and hygiene could prevent deadly infections that patients often picked up during their hospital stays. Diet was also crucial, she believed, and urged that more nutritious fare be served to the recuperating; she herself was a vegetarian who kept a pet goat that provided fresh goat's milk.
In 1826 Barry entered the medical history books for performing one of the first successful caesarean operations—an emergency abdominal incision made to remove a newborn when standard childbirth has stalled or been deemed too dangerous—in which neither mother nor infant died. This took place when she was called to the Cape Town home of a prominent merchant, Thomas Munnik, and the parents named their infant son James Barry Munnik in gratitude. She remained in the Cape Colony for another year or two, and then went on to Mauritius, where records show that she served as an army staff surgeon. From there, she was posted to several British properties in the Caribbean, including Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, and in Trinidad, where she advanced to the rank of Principal Medical Officer in the colony. But in 1845 she fell ill with yellow fever, a viral disease that was a leading cause of death in many parts of the world well into the twentieth century. Her assistant surgeon apparently discovered her true gender when she was seriously ill, but she managed to elicit a promise from him never to tell anyone before she recovered enough to sail to England for further care.
Toured Crimean War Hospitals
Other posts that Barry held included Malta, the Mediterranean isle that was a key British shipping port at the time, and the Greek island of Corfu, another British outpost where she was promoted to Deputy Inspector General. When British forces allied with the French to help Turkey fight Imperial Russia in the conflict known as the Crimean War (1854–56), Barry traveled to the area—now Ukraine—but did not serve, for her rank was so high that battlefield duty was not required of her. During her stint touring the field hospitals, however, she did manage to make an enemy of Florence Nightingale (1820–1910), the nursing pioneer whose efforts in Crimea were instrumental in establishing the profession as a respectable one for women. The saintly "Lady of the Lamp," as Nightingale was known, received Barry at her station, Scutari Hospital, but described the doctor as "the most hardened creature I ever met throughout the Army," according to Laura Collins in a Mail on Sunday article.
Age did not temper Barry's prickly personality or her habit of insubordination with her superiors in asserting her views on medicine. At one point she was forced to return to England under armed guard, but avoided official rebuke and was eventually packed off to Canada in 1857, where she was made Inspector General of Hospitals for Upper and Lower Canada, as the British holdings in present-day Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland were then known. There she continued her rather extravagant lifestyle, which had come to include a manservant, footman, and driver for her red sleigh, in which she sat swathed in furs. She also had several white poodles, all named Psyche—perhaps a reference to the mortal figure in Greek mythology of the same name, a woman so beautiful that no man would marry her. The dogs always slept near her, likely to alert her to any nighttime curiosity-seekers.
Sensational Stories of "Lady Doctor"
Barry fell ill in Canada around 1859, and went back to England. She was required to retire at the age of 65, but—not surprisingly—resisted the order vehemently. Her final few years were spent living in rented rooms in London, having cut all ties with her family decades ago and failing to form long-lasting friendships because of her secret. She died in London on July 25, 1865, of dysentery. She left explicit instructions that no post-mortem examination be conducted on her body after death, but a maid who was preparing the body for burial discovered her gender. The woman immediately informed the physician who had cared for Barry in her final hours that "Dr. Barry was a female and that I was a pretty doctor not to know this and that she would not like to be attended by me," according to Brooke Allen in the New York Times Book Review.
The story appeared in newspapers and captivated the public for several days, and there seemed to be physical evidence that she once carried a child quite late into term, for there were stretch marks across the abdomen. This may have been the reason behind the mysterious absence for several months between 1820 and 1821. One posthumous account of her life in the Malta Times of September 7, 1865, called readers' attention to a former Army doctor on the island and for many years in the Cape Colony, who "was excessively plain, of feeble proportions, and laboured under the imperfection of a ludicrously squeaking voice."
Barry was laid to rest at Kensal Green Cemetery in London, but her intriguing tale has proven the basis for many novels, plays, and films well into the twenty-first century. British actor Rachel Weisz (born 1971) was cast in the role of Barry in a 2007 feature film, Heaven and Earth.
Notable Women Scientists, Gale, 2000.
Mail on Sunday (London, England), November 10, 2002.
Malta Times, September 7, 1865.
New York Times, February 2, 2003.
Sun (London, England), January 19, 2006.
Sunday Times (London, England), January 9, 2005.