It’s sometimes easy to forget how much we take for granted in terms of gender equality these days. Until the 1860s, women were not admitted to universities – and even then, they were initially not allowed to take examinations. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836 – 1917) is widely known as the first female doctor in Britain, beginning her medical career as a surgery nurse in 1860 and then employing a private tutor to help her with the Latin, Greek, anatomy and physiognomy needed to sit in on medical lectures at the hospital where she worked. After much opposition from male medical students who objected to a woman trying to become a doctor, she achieved her license to practise medicine in 1865 – however, this was almost fifty years after James Miranda Barry, born as a woman in 1789, qualified as a doctor by presenting as male and living his whole life as a man.
My story takes some of the facts about Barry and weaves them together with a lot of invention to show how a girl from Cork renounced her gender to take on a male role in what was still very much a patriarchal society.
Doctoring The Truth
Snip! Snip! Snip! The girl’s long, dark tresses fall to the floor. Her mother continues until Margaret’s hair is shorn as short as any boy’s. “Put your brother’s old clothes on now,” she says, handing over a shirt and breeches.
Margaret looks at her mother. They both know this is the only way for a woman to train as a doctor in 1809, but she’s twenty years old and not flat-chested enough to pass scrutiny as a man. “I’ll bandage your breasts,” her mother says hurriedly. By the time the two of them have finished, Margaret Ann Bulkley has been transformed into James Miranda Barry, an identity that will be kept for the rest of Barry’s life.
It is November 30th when James and his ‘aunt’ board the fishing vessel that will carry them from their native Cork across the sea to Scotland. James is aware of his good fortune: some of his late father’s liberally minded friends have written letters and persuaded acquaintances that this fifteen-year old boy deserves to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh. All Barry has ever wanted is to be a doctor, and his uncle’s reputation as an Irish Romantic painter carries enough weight for him to be accepted into the Medical School as a literary and medical student. His short stature and slight figure produce speculation, despite the bandages – but it is not his gender that is in question but his age: the rumour is whispered that he must be a pre-pubescent boy, a child genius, and that he shouldn’t be allowed to sit his final examinations due to his youth. The Earl of Buchan fortuitously intervenes, enabling Barry to qualify as an MD in 1812, and after a year in London, as a pupil at the United Hospitals of St Thomas and St Guy, he successfully qualifies as a surgeon.
The army seems the next logical step. Barry is commissioned as a Hospital Assistant and is soon promoted to Assistant Surgeon to the Forces. His slender, womanish fingers are defter than most of his colleagues’ at making incisions and sewing up again afterwards; and he seems to have a stronger stomach than the other Assistants, taking guts and gore in his stride, never once blenching or feeling faint. At all times, he works with masculine detachment, refusing to let his emotions cloud his judgement.
So successful is he in his career path that he is soon posted to Cape Town with a letter of introduction from his former patron, Lord Buchan, to the Governor, Lieutenant-General Lord Charles Henry Somerset. Fortunately for Barry – but maybe not so much for the Governor’s family – Lord Charles’ daughter becomes ill with cholera soon after the young doctor’s arrival and Barry is sent for at once. He looks at Lord Charles and hesitates, not wanting to promise a cure he isn’t certain can be delivered; but it’s the sight of the girl’s mother, Lady Francesca, that finally sways him: she’s sufficiently like his mother to tug at his heartstrings and make him swear to bring her daughter back to full health.
The daughter’s miraculous recovery is, in fact, a result of common sense rather than divine intervention. James is intelligent enough to realise that poor sanitation and contaminated water supplies are responsible for much of the disease prevalent in the South African capital and immediately sets about advising the family to boil all their drinking water whilst he administers calomel and opium to the ten year old girl. Once she is declared out of danger, Barry is welcomed into the family, becoming a close friend of Lord Charles and a favourite of Lady Francesca. When Charles asks him to become his personal physician, he cannot refuse for he is already more than a little in love with this handsome man who is less than ten years older than Barry himself. Although he likes Lady Francesca, he cannot help the intense attraction he feels towards her husband; and the evenings the two men spend together, sequestered in Lord Charles’ study with a bottle of port (for Charles; Barry is teetotal) and some good cigars only add to his confusion.
One night, as the lamps are burning low, Charles asks Barry if he’s ever had a woman. “I’m not that way inclined, Sir,” Barry replies. Lord Charles’ eyebrows shoot up, but he says nothing. Such unnaturalness is reviled or at best ignored in 1817. Taking the biggest gamble of his life, Barry begins unbuttoning his shirt, determined to show his friend his true self. Once he has divested himself of his breeches, Lord Charles understands fully. They agree afterwards that Lady Francesca would only be upset were she to learn of the new relationship between her husband and his physician.
It is two years later when Lady Francesca comments that Barry is putting on weight, little dreaming that her husband has fathered an illegitimate child. Lord Charles, afraid of scandal, suggests that the pregnancy be terminated: the African women, he says have herbs that can induce a miscarriage. But James has sworn the Hippocratic oath, promising “not [to] give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion” and to “abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm”. His career and reputation are on the line, but he must adhere to the promises he has made.
Eventually, a compromise is reached. James will absent himself from the governor’s family for a while, ostensibly to visit a distant cousin who is recently widowed and in her sixth month with child. Lady Francesca is immediately sympathetic, offering to let the poor creature stay with them for her confinement; but James refuses, claiming that the lady is too ill to travel. He returns five months later, bringing with him a two months old baby: his cousin died, he says, and he is the only surviving relative the child now has. Lord Charles’ wife, charitable to a fault, immediately insists that the little girl become one of the family. “For you are my adopted brother,” she says, smiling fondly at James, “and so this little one shall be my adopted niece.” James and Charles swiftly resume their former intimacy, although this time, they are more careful – which as just as well since James has no other female kin who can be used to explain a baby’s appearance.
Little Margaret – named for Barry’s sister who, he says, died when he was twenty – is three when her adopted Uncle Charles appoints Barry as Colonial Medical Inspector. At first, James is angry with his lover, seeing the position as a bribe to ensure that their affair remain secret; but Charles assures him that the post is well deserved and, indeed, Barry’s accomplishments in the ten years he spends working in the Cape are staggering: in addition to his work improving sanitation and water systems, he improves conditions for enslaved people, prisoners and the mentally ill, and sets up a leper sanctuary, causing Lady Francesca to exclaim in admiration, “It is no wonder that we women are known as the weaker sex for anyone seems like a lazy and ineffectual individual when compared with the tireless devotion to duty of our dear Doctor Barry!”
In 1827, the thirty-eight-year old Barry is promoted to Surgeon of the Forces. He is still unable to believe that he has advanced this far in his army career without ever undergoing a medical examination, but officers are exempt from such administrative nonsense and this has certainly been an advantage for someone who entered the ranks as a Hospital Assistant, never expecting to advance so rapidly in such a short space of time.
He bids a fond farewell in 1828 to the Somersets, knowing that he is unlikely to find another adopted family in his new post in Mauritius. There is no question about Margaret accompanying him – how can a single man take care of a small child? – but he knows he is leaving her in good hands with her natural father and foster-aunt. Once in Mauritius, he quickly carves himself a niche as a favourite with the officers’ wives who all flirt with him shamelessly, allured by his gentle hands and soothing bedside manner.
For someone who is often cold and abrupt when issuing orders, Barry is surprisingly sensitive when it comes to coaxing hypochondriacal women back into health. “Come now, Mrs Fanshawe,” he tells one lady who claims to be suffering from extreme melancholia, “no one with eyes as pretty as yours can stay sad for long. Put on a pretty gown and receive some of your friends and you will be feeling back to normal in no time- particularly,” and here he lowers his voice roguishly, “when not one of them will look half as ravishing as you do in your lavender tea dress!”
“Doctor Barry!” the woman replies, simpering into her handkerchief, “you would make a very good woman!”
Barry’s heart pauses momentarily.
“But I would much rather see you become a very wicked man!” she continues coquettishly.
Barry relaxes once more. His secret has not been discovered after all.
“Madam,” he says gravely, “I am truly flattered – alas! I prefer the company of men.” He holds her gaze for an instant, allowing her to take in the meaning of his words.
If anything, this confession makes him even more popular with the army wives, for each one determines to succeed where all others have failed. Undeterred, Barry continues to charm them all whilst preserving his identity as a somewhat effeminate but excellent doctor.
He has been in Mauritius for a year when a letter arrives from Lady Francesca telling him that Lord Charles is very ill. Risking his career, Barry departs immediately for England where the Somersets have their family residence. He tells himself it is time he saw his daughter, but Charles occupies his mind fully, first on the journey back to Cape Town and then on the long voyage from Africa to Portsmouth. While the boat cuts through the water, he muses on his lover’s symptoms. He treated Lord Charles for syphilis years ago when the man developed blotchy red rashes on his soles and palms and started losing his hair. He’d thought at the time that the mercury injections he’d given had eradicated the pox, but what if Sir Charles has merely been experiencing a latent stage until now? Has the syphilis returned; and, more worrying still, does that mean that he, Barry, is also at risk?
He is shocked to see how visibly Charles has aged when he finally reaches the family seat in Worcester. The once handsome face is now disfigured by weeping sores and skin and bones seem irreparably damaged. He examines Charles methodically while Francesca waits outside the room. It is as he thought: the advanced stages of Cupid’s disease are affecting Somerset’s internal organs and cardiovascular system, and even mercury injections will be of little use now.
It takes two years for Charles to die. Barry is aware that he could be court-martialled for leaving his post without permission, but he cannot abandon his grand passion. He and Francesca take it in turns to nurse the man they both love, she remaining as oblivious to Barry’s true feelings as she is to his gender. He has never explicitly said what ails her husband, but he thinks she has guessed; and he is amazed at her fortitude in continuing to care for a man who has been so constantly inconstant.
The funeral takes place one wintry morning, the weather aptly reflecting Barry’s frozen heart. He is a valued family friend, a so-called ‘adopted’ brother, but there is no suitable outlet for his grief and he feels like Hamlet, forced to watch in frustration as Laertes flings himself into Ophelia’s grave. He cannot mourn Charles as a lover so his tears must go unshed.
Leaving England soon after this, Barry finds himself posted first to Jamaica and then to Saint Helena. It seems he is fated to spend all of his career abroad when he is sent next to the Leeward Islands and Westward Islands of the West Indies. As he did so effectively in Cape Town, Barry focuses on improving what he can, tacking both medicine and management as well as the conditions of the troops. No one is surprised when he is promoted again – this time to Principal Medical Officer: when it comes to administration, he is a whirlwind, seeing immediately what needs to be done and organising everyone and everything effortlessly.
In 1845, more than thirty years after becoming an army medical officer, Barry contracts yellow fever and takes temporary sick leave, returning to England for the first time since Charles’s death. By now, his daughter is twenty-six and married to a country curate. It is a good match for a girl who is technically illegitimate and Barry feels grateful to Francesca for treating his so-called niece so well.
Once recovered and cleared for duty, Barry is sent to Malta. Now in his fifties, he shows no signs of slowing down, dealing with a cholera epidemic in 1850 and earning the grudging respect of most of the officials he has so far offended. Feeling he has nothing to lose since Somerset’s death, he now cultivates rudeness to the point of making it an art form, yet this does not prevent him from being promoted to the rank of Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals in Corfu. The post is a prestigious one, but Barry has set his heart on the Crimea and is disgruntled to have his wishes thwarted. He compensates by spending his leave there instead.
As the years pass, his interest in the Crimea grows as England becomes part of an alliance of several countries involved in a war there with Russia. Reports have filtered through to England about the horrific conditions for the wounded soldiers and Barry is desperate to help in some way but is refused. His frustration grows when he hears of a woman some thirty years his junior who has been sent there, under the authorisation of the Secretary at War, Sidney Herbert, with a staff of 38 women volunteer nurses that she has trained herself; and he wonders bitterly whether he too might have had the same opportunities as a woman in the field of medicine had he, like Florence Nightingale, been born to wealthier parents. When he finally meets the woman during a visit to Scutari Hospital in 1854, he cannot avoid becoming embroiled in an argument with her.
“Do you think,” he asks somewhat aggressively, “that you would have accomplished more had you been a man?”
Nightingale, who has taken exception to his heavy-handed approach and tactless manner, replies spiritedly that she has for some time believed that women can be equals to men.
“It must be easy to follow a career when your father gives you an income of £500 per annum,” Barry says acidly.
“No amount of money can compensate for the struggles women have to face in defying the social codes expected of them!” she exclaims in a passion. “Were you not a man, you would soon realise that!”
And, indeed, Barry is aware that he would not have been able to study for a medical degree as a woman – let alone qualify as a surgeon or join the army. Nevertheless, he cannot help feeling irritated that she has carved out a name for herself without having to put on a pair of breeches.
In later years, Nightingale will remember their meeting, calling Barry a blackguard and claiming that he “behaved like a brute”, and it will be Nightingale’s name in the history books and not Barry’s.
A last official posting to Canada sees Barry continuing to improve sanitary conditions. A strict vegetarian, he takes a keen interest in the common soldier’s diet as well as that of their families and does what he can to educate them about nutrition. As before in The Cape, he fights for better medical care for prisoners and lepers, inciting the wrath of officials and military officers when he campaigns on behalf of the poor and other underprivileged groups. Florence Nightingale may be improving nursing standards in a few hospitals in the Crimea, but he, Barry, will affect thousands more lives in the British Empire.
Pushing himself so hard begins to take its toll and the army forces him to retire in 1859 due to ill health and old age. Barry is seventy by this time, although his records claim he is sixty-five. He lives quietly in London for another six years before finally succumbing to dysentery and dying on 25th July 1865.
It is only now that Barry’s secret is discovered. He has spent 56 years as a man, insisting on always undressing in a room on his own, but the charwoman who lays him out goes to the press with her scandalous story, condemning contemporary doctors for not knowing that the man she has been cleaning for was really a woman. All of a sudden, many people claim to have “known all along”; whereas the British Army, embarrassed by the woman’s story, seal all records of their former employee for the next one hundred years. So successful are they in suppressing the truth that over a hundred and fifty years after Barry’s death, his name and true identity remain virtually unknown.