Hide in Plain Sight

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Reality has a long, horrifying tradition of being stranger then fiction. Just when you think you have heard everything, some new corner of the past is suddenly illuminated for you, and changes cherished myths forever.

This happened to me some days ago, when I encountered the strange story of  Dr. James Barry, who may have been a typical army surgeon in Britain in the early 1800s…or he may have been the first female doctor in history. Read on, and see what you think of his/her curious history….and remember…NOTHING is ever what it seems to be at first glance.


The following is reprinted from New Scientist.

Histories: The ‘male’ military surgeon who wasn’t

by Stephanie Pain

On 25 July 1865, charwoman Sophia Bishop was asked to lay out the body of James Barry. During 46 years as a British Army doctor, Barry had served in garrisons across the empire, making a name as a zealous reformer who improved the health of soldiers and civilians alike. What Bishop now claimed to have discovered made Barry one of the most talked-about doctors in history. Dr Barry, Bishop pronounced, was “a perfect female”. But was he really a she? And if so, who was she and how had she kept her secret for so long? Despite 140 years of speculation, the truth about Barry has proved elusive. After years of dogged detective work, retired urologist Michael du Preez has finally put the record straight.

MYSTERY, intrigue, romance… the story of Dr Barry has them all. The tale is so compelling it’s been told countless times, yet no one has ever solved the central mystery: who was Barry, the pint-sized physician with the sandy curls and squeaky voice? The doctor was both caring and quarrelsome, dainty yet dashing. He fought for better conditions for the troops, shot a man in a duel and faced a court martial, yet still made it to the top of his profession.

Barry had sprung from nowhere to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1809, and might have returned to obscurity if he hadn’t fallen victim to the epidemic of dysentery that swept London in the summer of 1865. He had no known relatives, so the job of preparing his body for burial fell to Sophia Bishop, the charwoman at Barry’s lodgings. When the funeral was over, Bishop dropped a bombshell: the distinguished army doctor was a woman.

If Bishop was telling the truth, then a girl had posed as a young man long enough to complete medical training (making her the first medically qualified woman in the UK), fooled the army into hiring her and then kept her sex secret for almost half a century. Appalled by the idea, army officials locked away Barry’s service records for a hundred years and hoped the story would go away.

It hasn’t yet. Without a post-mortem, there was only Bishop’s word to go on, but that was enough to trigger endless speculation. Some contemporaries claimed to have known all along. Others reckoned it was impossible to keep such a secret for so long: Barry must have been a man or possibly a hermaphrodite.

In the 1950s, historian Isobel Rae persuaded the army to open up Barry’s records. From those and other documents, she pieced together a detailed picture of the doctor’s career. What Rae found also led her to believe that Barry was a woman and probably a niece of James Barry, the celebrated Irish artist. But without proof of the girl’s identity, the question of Barry’s sex refused to go away. One recent notion is that Barry was born with androgen insensitivity syndrome, genetically male but lacking male hormone receptors, although her small stature and physique suggest otherwise.

Michael du Preez first heard the story as a boy in Cape Town, South Africa, where Barry is a well-known character. As assistant surgeon to the garrison there, Barry introduced sweeping health reforms. He fought for better food, sanitation and proper medical care for prisoners and lepers, as well as soldiers and their families. Most famously, he was the first British surgeon to perform a successful Caesarean section, saving the lives of mother and baby. Du Preez became a doctor himself and, when he retired in 2001, he set out to solve the mystery of Dr Barry once and for all.

Earlier investigators had searched the obvious archives and drawn a blank, so du Preez tried a new tack: if Barry was a close relative of James Barry the artist, then papers linked to the artist’s family might provide some leads. Hidden among a large collection of letters, accounts and legal documents, he found conclusive evidence of Dr Barry’s identity and new information that helped him reconstruct much of the doctor’s early life.

His discoveries leave no doubt that Barry started life in Ireland as Margaret Ann Bulkley, the daughter of Jeremiah, a grocer in Cork, and Mary-Ann, sister of James Barry, professor of painting at London’s Royal Academy. They also reveal a conspiracy between Margaret’s mother and some of her uncle’s influential and liberal-minded friends to get her through medical school.

The key evidence comes from some two dozen letters, some penned by the teenaged Margaret and some by Barry the student doctor. According to Alison Reboul, an expert on document analysis with the UK’s Forensic Science Service, they were all written by the same person. Most exciting of all was the discovery of a letter the budding doctor had written to the family solicitor Daniel Reardon on arrival in Edinburgh in 1809. “Reardon was a meticulous man,” says du Preez. “On the outside of all the letters he received he wrote the date and the name of the sender.” This letter was signed “James Barry” but on the outside Reardon had written “Miss Bulkley, 14th December”. “You can’t get much more conclusive than that,” says du Preez.

So what was the story? In 1803, Margaret’s father was jailed for debt, leaving his wife and daughter destitute. They appealed to their famous relative, Barry the artist, hoping he might help Margaret finish her education so she could earn a respectable living teaching. Barry and his circle were prominent advocates of women’s education, and he seems to have discussed the Margaret problem with two friends: physician Edward Fryer and General Francisco Miranda, Venezuelan revolutionary and sometime resident of London. Barry died suddenly in February 1806, but some of his money ended up in a fund for Margaret and within months she and her mother were living in London (South African Medical Journal, vol 98, p 52).

For the next three years Margaret studied, taking lessons from Fryer and making good use of Miranda’s “extensive and elegant” library. The records don’t reveal when the plan to educate Margaret became a plot to make a doctor of her, but they do show who was in on the conspiracy: Fryer, Miranda, Reardon and Margaret’s mother. Miranda may have been the prime mover: he promised Margaret a job in Venezuela once he had liberated it from the Spanish. “Miranda was an enlightened man and probably had no problem with the idea of a woman doctor,” says du Preez.

The flaw in the scheme was that no British medical school admitted women. If Margaret was to qualify as a doctor, she would have to masquerade as a boy for three whole years.

The disappearance of Margaret Bulkley and the appearance of a young medical student called James Barry was carefully orchestrated. The Bulkleys were unknown in Scotland, so they planned to establish themselves there as aunt and nephew. Du Preez discovered that they travelled to Edinburgh by sea, rather than stagecoach. Newly enrolled at university, the freshly minted “James Barry” wrote to Reardon: “It was very usefull for Mrs Bulkley (my aunt) to have a Gentleman to take care of her on Board Ship and to have one in a strange country.” This indicates precisely when the metamorphosis of Margaret took place, says du Preez. She must have had to board the ship already dressed as a boy, or risk shipboard rumours following them to Edinburgh.

To protect Margaret’s secret, the pair cut themselves off from friends and family. Only the conspirators knew who they were and where they were. From now on, Margaret kept herself to herself, always wore an overcoat and lied about her age to avoid questions about her smooth chin and high voice.

Barry graduated in 1812 and after six months as a pupil at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, joined the army – surely a strange choice for someone with such a secret to hide. But Barry’s options were limited: General Miranda had just been betrayed by fellow revolutionaries and thrown into a Spanish jail. There was no longer a job for Margaret in Venezuela. “Put yourself in her position,” says du Preez. “You’ve spent all that time maintaining this deception, so what do you do now? If she had come clean and said she was a woman she couldn’t have done anything in Britain. The army was actively seeking doctors, so she chose the army.”

Will du Preez’s discoveries put an end to the speculation? He thinks not. “People will probably still argue about this until someone eventually exhumes her remains, tests her chromosomes and settles the matter for good.”

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2 Comments

  1. oh my!

    /grins and adds Doctor Barry’s name to the list of hero/ines to visit with a time machine/

  2. I fully agree, Lady Darkling! Make room for me when that tardis leaves.


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