James Miranda Stuart Barry (1789/99 – 1865)
The latest inductee into our Hall of Fame is James Barry who had a career as a military surgeon in the British Army. As you can see from his dates, his early life is shrouded in mystery, more of which later.
Graduating from the University of Edinburgh Medical School in 1812 he successfully passed his exams at the Royal College of Surgeons in England in July 1813 and was commissioned as a Hospital Assistant with the army where he quickly rose up the ranks to become an Assistant Staff Surgeon. It is thought he saw service at the Battle of Waterloo.
One of the benefits of having a scalpel and being in the British Army was that it gave one the opportunity to see the world. Barry served in India and then arrived in Cape Town. Within a couple of weeks of landing there he had become Medical Inspector for the colony and began to campaign for and implement a better water system. It was there that Barry achieved his first claim to fame – he performed the first known successful Caesarean section with both mother and baby – named James Barry Munnick – surviving the ordeal.
But Barry was clearly a prickly character, not suffering fools gladly, because wherever he went around the Empire he earned the enmity of his fellow Brits and often had to leave quickly. He was said to have had a good bedside manner, was a vegetarian and a tee-totaller (we can’t all be perfect) and recommended wine baths for his patients. By 1857 he had become an Inspector-General of Hospitals in Canada and campaigned for better food, sanitation and proper medical care for prisoners and lepers as well as soldiers and their families. He campaigned for and introduced pears into the military diet, immediately improving the soldiers’ daily intake of Vitamin C. Retiring in 1864 – reputedly against his wishes – he returned to England and died the next year from dysentery.
It was his death which unravelled Barry’s secret and why this medical campaigner deserves his elevation to our hallowed ranks. Sophia Bishop, a charwoman, took care of his body and when she examined Barry’s body she was astonished to find that he was a female. According to a Major McKinnon, “Bishop had examined the body and was a perfect female and farther that there were marks of him having had a child when very young“. McKinnon concluded that Barry was a Hermaphrodite.
Whether that was the case or not, it seems that Barry was identified or assigned as a female at birth and named Margaret Ann Bulkley, raised as a girl but, because the times were not as liberal in those days as now, chose to live as a man so that he could be accepted to a university and study to be a doctor. It is astonishing that (s)he pulled it off and there is evidence that many in the know were complicit in the deception.
For all Barry’s failings, he was a medical campaigner and deserves recognition as the first British woman to become a qualified medical doctor.
James Barry, as British medicine’s foremost gender-bender, you are a worthy inductee.
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