James Miranda Barry
Birth - Death
1789 - 1865
Born Margaret Ann Bulkley as a woman, James Barry decided to live his entire life as a man in order to enter into university and to be able to pursue a career as a doctor. He successfully did so as a surgeon in the British Army. Barry ultimately achieved the rank of Inspector General in charge of military hospitals.
From correspondence found in 2001, it is known that Barry’s decision to live his life as a man was a combination of his own personal desire and that of his destitute mother. Traveling from Ireland to Scotland, he passed himself off as male and successfully enrolled in the University of Edinburgh Medical School, qualified as a Medical Doctor in 1812 with a thesis on hernias, and then took the exam of the Royal College of Physician and Surgeons in London in 1813.
At this point, James Barry joined the British Army and was posted in Chelsea, followed by postings in India and South Africa, where he became Medical Inspector. Subsequent other postings included various Caribbean Islands, Malta, Canada, and the West Indies. He was successfully promoted to Inspector General, then Principal Medical Officer, and finally Inspector General of Hospitals in Canada (being the army’s senior doctor in the country).
It was only after his death and an autopsy was completed that James Miranda Barry was confirmed as a woman. It is of particular interest that the record of his service was then sealed by the British Army until released in 1950.
In medical history, James Barry’s is noted for having performed the very first caesarean section in which both the mother and child survived. This event occurred during his posting in South Africa during the birth of a boy who was named James Barry Munik, in the surgeon’s honour.
Throughout his life, James Barry was described simply as eccentric, and this apparently sufficed as a justifiable reason for his apparent feminine looks and demeanour. He was further described as small and thin, with no hair on his face and the voice of an aged woman.
Nevertheless, he was a highly respected surgeon throughout his career. Barry continuously argued for better medical reforms in the army in terms of hygiene and diet. His support for the troops was well regarded and appreciated.
Subsequent historical analysis of the case of James Barry has suggested that he was intersex and had Testicular-Feminization Syndrome, also known as Androgen-Insensitivity Syndrome. The fact that he lived his life as a man, and was able to accomplish so much that only a man of his time could accomplish, strongly suggests that his dominant visible physical features were male.
At one point in his career, James Barry was charged with having an unnatural and immoral affair with the Governor of South Africa, Lord Charles Somerset. The pair was charged with homosexual acts, which resulted in libel action by Somerset. It is believed a possibility that this affair may have led to the birth of a child, this being based on the markings of his body found during the autopsy.
The case of James Barry raises a number of questions for LGBTQ historians. Is it accurate to describe him as the world’s first woman doctor, even though he did so using subterfuge and though he lived his entire adult life as a man? As noted, it is known that James Barry transitioned to male for the sole purpose of becoming a medical doctor – letters found in 2001 written by him as a teenager provides definitive proof of the conspiracy story of misleading college officials to gain entrance to the medical school in Scotland.
It is generally accepted that James Barry was indeed female, but had to pass as a male during his lifetime to retain his professional position. That in itself, though reflective of the social norms of his time, gives pause to consider James Barry as a brave individual who was committed to his profession regardless of his actual sex.