Barry, James (c.1792–1865), army doctor, was possibly born in Cork. Information on Barry's origins is scanty and speculative, as is proof of gender. Accepted in life as a male, he or she was hailed three weeks after death as Britain's first female doctor, and celebrated as such in later biographies, plays, and novels; however, evidence remains inconclusive. Rachel Holmes's biography (2002) and an article in a medical journal (2001) conclude that he or she was a hermaphrodite. This article follows the more common practice of referring to Barry as ‘she’.
Secrecy and obfuscation surround Barry's early life – she gave different years for her birth in university and army records, and the names of her parents are nowhere listed. She was probably related to the Irish artist James Barry (qv) and definitely enjoyed the patronage of two of his well-connected friends, David Steuart Erskine, 11th earl of Buchan, and the Latin-American exile Gen. Francisco de Miranda, both of whom have been suggested as her father. The most frequent theory places her as Margaret, the precocious daughter of Jeremiah Bulkley (or Bulkeley), a Cork merchant, and his wife, Mary Ann (née Barry), sister of the artist, who arrived in London from Cork in 1805 to ask help from her brother. He refused; but when he died intestate the following year, she benefited from his will and perhaps used the money to provide an education for her teenage daughter, who may have displayed signs of hermaphroditism. Gen. Miranda and Lord Buchan – author of an article championing female education – may have been the instigators of the scheme to dress Margaret as a boy.
As James Barry, she enrolled as a literary and medical student in the University of Edinburgh (December 1809). Mrs Bulkley (whom she referred to as ‘aunt’) stayed with her a year at 6 Lothian St., and then returned to London leaving Barry under the protection of Lord Buchan. Intensely studious, she took not only the mandatory courses but also midwifery and anatomical dissection. Other students found her reserved and mocked her small, slight figure. The university tried to prevent her presenting her thesis (on hernia of the groin), on grounds of youth – in university records her birth year appears as 1799 – but Lord Buchan pointed out that there was no age stipulation, and she was awarded the MD in 1812. The thesis was dedicated to Miranda and Buchan. If born in 1799, she was the youngest doctor to graduate in Britain, but most recent biographers dispute this claim.
In October 1812 she proceeded to St Thomas’s Hospital, London, and was apprenticed to the surgeon, Sir Astley Cooper. Within months she had decided to join the army and on 15 July 1813 was gazetted as hospital assistant and posted to the hospital at Plymouth garrison. After being promoted to assistant surgeon (17 December 1815), she was posted to Cape Town in 1816.
Armed with letters of introduction from Buchan to the governor, Lord Charles Somerset, she was within a year appointed physician to Somerset's household and was his confidante and, possibly, lover. A scandal about their relationship later ensued and Somerset was accused of homosexuality. Gossip about Barry's effeminacy had circulated within months of her arrival in the Cape. A natty dresser, witty conversationalist, good dancer, and superb whip and marksman, she took care to cultivate a reputation as a lady-killer, but her figure – even for a woman – was slight (5 ft; 1.52 m), her hands and feet were delicate, and her voice was high. Accusations of effeminacy were not made to her face; she was hot-tempered and in 1818 fought a duel with Somerset's ADC over a remark about the governor. On the rare occasions when she fell ill, she apparently only allowed a medical examination in a darkened room. After her death many claimed to have known she was a woman, but only one obscure account written during her life made this claim. In winter 1819 she repaired to the island of Mauritius, possibly to give birth to Somerset's child.
Appointed colonial medical inspector of the Cape by Somerset in March 1822, Barry remained in the army on half pay. In her new position she was distinguished by her insistence on hygienic standards, and raised concerns about overcrowding, bad drainage, and lack of ventilation in prisons and hospitals. She laid out a plan for systematic vaccination against smallpox throughout the colony (almost twenty years before the measure was introduced in England), made illegal the sale of drugs without a doctor's prescription, and greatly improved the care of lepers. Her concern for marginalised members of society was manifest throughout her life, as was her practical approach to health: she focused not just on the direct cause of illness but on sanitation, diet, and living conditions, and in this was well in advance of her time. However, she was also opinionated, bossy, and undiplomatic, and made enemies among the shopkeepers whom she prevented selling drugs without prescription, and among authorities on the Cape whose position she challenged. Her outspoken criticism over the treatment of a prisoner led to a court summons and the subsequent abolition of the office of colonial medical inspector. The supreme medical committee appointed in its stead offered Barry a place on the board, but she refused. A commission of inquiry later cleared her of all wrongdoing, but could not reinstate the post. Fortunately she had kept her army position open.
Seven months after the abolition of her civilian post came her greatest success: on 25 July 1826 she performed a caesarean section on the wife of merchant Thomas Munick, and both mother and son survived. The first recorded success of a caesarean was in Zurich in 1818; the operation was not performed in Britain till 1833. The child (her godson) was named James Barry, and over a hundred years later the first-born sons in the Munick family were still named for the doctor. On 27 November 1827 Barry was gazetted staff surgeon, and the following year she took up a short-lived post on Mauritius before sailing for England, without leave, on 27 August 1829, probably because she heard of Somerset's ill health. She attended him but he died in February 1831. In June of that year she arrived in Jamaica to take up her position as staff surgeon. After five years she was posted to St Helena, but her quest for high standards (coupled with her tactlessness) again led to difficulties; in March 1838 she returned home and was court-martialled for ‘conduct unbecoming’ – she had criticised fellow officers. Fully acquitted, she was posted to the Windward and Leeward Islands and appointed principal medical officer in 1842. After succumbing to yellow fever, she was invalided home for a year in December 1845 till posted to Malta in November 1846. After serving four years, she moved to Corfu (1851) and was promoted to deputy inspector-general of hospitals (April 1851).
On the outbreak of the Crimean war she applied for a posting to the Crimea, but was rejected because of her seniority. After her personal appeal to Lord Raglan, a few hundred wounded men were sent to be nursed by her in Corfu. She spent her three-month leave in 1855 with the 4th Division before Sevastopol. There she met and berated Florence Nightingale. They shared a concern for sanitation, but it is possible that Barry was jealous of the attention accorded to Nightingale. Sebastian Barry's 2004 play ‘Whistling Psyche’ is based on this incident.
In November 1857 Barry was posted to Canada, but the climate proved chilly after years in the tropics; she suffered bronchitis and influenza and was invalided home in May 1859. Shortly afterwards, she retired on half pay. On 25 July 1865 she died in lodgings at 14 Margaret St., Cavendish Square, London, and was buried in Kensal Green cemetery. The death certificate gave her sex as male, but the charwoman (Sophia Bishop) who laid out the corpse said that it was the body of a woman who had borne a child. Three weeks after her death a Dublin paper, Saunders's Newsletter and Daily Advertiser, published an article entitled ‘A female army combatant’, and the story was immediately picked up by British papers. The deputy inspector of hospitals attempted to quash the rumours, but they persisted, and the registrar-general finally requested clarification from Dr McKinnon, who had signed the death certificate. He claimed not to have made an intimate examination of Barry's body, but suggested that she may have been a hermaphrodite.
If female, Barry was the first woman in Britain to graduate as a doctor; the next claimant, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, graduated in 1865, the year of Barry's death. Regardless of her gender, Barry's achievements were remarkable, and her insistence on hygiene and healthy living made her a pioneering reformer. The glamour of her alleged cross-dressing overwhelmed these achievements after death; in life her argumentative nature, exacerbated no doubt by her peculiar circumstances, caused difficulties in a career which was, nonetheless, largely successful. The need for secrecy left her lonely and unable to form close friendships. Patients found her humane and sympathetic, but it is likely that her lifelong concealment prevented the full development of her character. Somerset called her ‘the greatest physician I have ever met, but absurd in everything else’ (Rose, 56).