You think you know a man, only to find out you didn’t know him at all. The 19th century Irishman James Miranda Steuart Barry was a doctor, surgeon, and Inspector General, but behind all his professional achievements, he kept a huge secret. What was he hiding? And how did he maintain the façade? Strap in and get ready to learn about a true trailblazer.
In 1789, Dr. James Barry entered the world in Cork, Ireland as "Margaret Ann Bulkley". Yes, you read that right—Barry was born a girl. The second child of a grocer and his wife, nobody would have thought that the feisty little baby with red-gold hair would lead such an extraordinary life. So what exactly pushed young Margaret into becoming Dr. James Barry? Let’s find out.
Barry's childhood was far from idyllic. The family fell on hard times when Barry's father lost his job because of his Catholic beliefs. It didn’t help that the family was also struggling with tremendous debt—and that Barry’s layabout older brother did nothing to help keep them afloat. Unfortunately, when it comes to young Barry's problems, this was just the tip of the iceberg.
But first, a quick note: Since Barry used he/him pronouns throughout his life, we're using them too.
Barry's life became much more complicated when a cruel uncle started showing up at the family's door. Even worse, he forced unwanted attention on Barry, who was barely a teenager at the time. This ended in a devastating way. The uncle found Barry alone one day and took advantage. He assaulted his own young relative—and the result was heartbreaking.
Understandably, Barry and his mother disappeared from the public eye after this traumatic event. When they returned, however, everyone was in for a surprise. Apparently while Mrs. Barry was away, she'd given birth to the youngest Bulkley sibling, Juliana. However, researchers believe a much darker series of events lay behind Juliana's birth.
Experts believe that Juliana wasn’t Barry's youngest sister, but his secret child, born because of his uncle’s heinous act. Scholars substantiated this theory when, upon Barry's death, examiners discovered that his body bore marks of a pregnancy. But sadly, there is no further mention of Juliana in Barry’s later life. Even if they were parent and child, it appears that when Barry changed his identity, he also cut ties with anything—and anyone—linking him to his tragic past.
When Barry's family fell on hard times and his father was imprisoned, Barry’s mother took her children to her brother’s house in London. Young Barry flourished under his uncle’s care and learned a lot more than he ever could have in Cork. That's why, when his Uncle James passed on, Barry paid tribute to him by taking up his name.
As a teenager, Barry received the kind of education that would let him become a teacher. Unfortunately, that plan backfired. Turns out no one wanted to hire a young person with zero experience to tutor their kids! But in the end, this worked in Barry’s favor. Barry's uncle had already told his friends all about his brilliant young relative.
Two of them, General Miranda and the Earl of Buchan, took Barry under their wing and encouraged him to pursue medicine as a man. They urged him to apply at the University of Edinburgh. The rest, as they say, is history.
After rebranding as "James Miranda Steuart Barry," our hero trotted off to medical school. But while some things worked out perfectly, there were still plenty of challenges for Barry in Edinburgh. His slight stature and smooth skin made the university staff believe that he had lied about his age. If it turned out that Barry was too young to attend medical school, they'd kick him out. Thankfully, Barry's fancy friend, the Earl of Buchan, made the school let Barry stay.
Barry was a stylish young man. He always wore an overcoat, buttoned to the top, and increased his petite stature with three-inch high shoe inserts. He also kept his bright red hair chopped close to his head. Though his lack of facial hair and his especially smooth skin raised some eyebrows, people got used to it. But the thing that gave Barry the most trouble wasn't his skin or his height: It was his voice.
Barry's high-pitched voice was a major thorn in his side. People remarked upon it throughout his life—and not always in a complimentary way. Whenever people pointed out that Barry's voice was kinda high, he'd become angry and pick fights. On one occasion, when two people made fun of his voice, Barry went so far as to challenge them to a formal duel.
For some people, college is an all-out party. For Barry, not so much. He attended lectures for 16 hours a day and performed dissections in disgusting, unhygienic environments. lessons, dissections that had to be done in unhygienic conditions. Thankfully, he made it through and graduated from medical school in 1812. After one more exam, he was officially "Dr. Barry".
In his younger days, however, Barry didn't want to be a doctor. He wanted to fight on the front lines. The precocious child once wrote, "Was I not a girl, I would be a soldier!" Well, in a way, he'd get his wish—for better or for worse.
When Barry first decided to dress as a man and study medicine, his original plan was to get his degree and then join his old mentor, General Miranda. After graduation, the idea was to travel to Venezuela with Miranda and practice medicine there as a woman. At the time, the General was trying to make a free Venezuelan republic where men and women would be treated equally. Unfortunately, that did not come to pass.
Some of the General’s ideas, shall we say, clashed with the Revolutionaries. Furious, they betrayed the General and turned him over to the Spanish. They kept the General imprisoned for years until he eventually passed. This loss was an absolutely devastating blow to Barry. Not only did it destroy his plans to practice medicine as a woman, it also robbed him of a father figure.
It still wasn’t possible for Barry to become an officer in the army as he had once desired, so Barry did the next best thing. He enlisted as an assistant surgeon (told you he'd get into the forces in one way or another!). As usual, Barry's youthful looks made people murmur about their new co-worker, but the stars aligned in Barry’s favor. He began to serve in December 1815. With that, Barry's legacy officially kicked off.
Remember Lord Buchan, the fancy man who helped Barry get into the University of Edinburgh despite rumors that he was too young? He pops back into the story to help our hero once more. When Barry was stationed in Cape Town, South Africa, Buchan introduced him to the Governor of the area, Lieutenant General Lord Charles Henry Somerset. Barry and Somerset became such good friends that eventually, rumors about the nature of their connection began to spread.
Did the Governor know about Barry’s secret? Was there more between them than just platonic friendship? Of course, no one knows for sure, but people speculated that the doctor and the Governor were in love. As evidence, people pointed out how the Governor suddenly promoted Barry to “Colonial Medical Inspector”...and then moved Barry into some private apartments at the Governor's own residence. With that, the rumor mill really went wild.
An anonymous accuser put up a poster depicting Barry’s and the Governor’s relationship as, shall we say, not very wholesome? Back in the 1800s, this kind of accusation was incredibly serious. Official commissions even investigated Barry's relationship with the Governor, but after failing to discover anything untoward, the two men were both exonerated. After this scandal, they would have to move on with their lives, with or without each other’s company.
James Barry ended up spending over 12 years in Cape Town. While there, he did a lot of work to elevate the conditions of the locals. Barry vigorously advocated on behalf of the city and managed to get Cape Town better water and sanitation systems. How'd he do it? Not through diplomacy. Barry's fiery temper earned him a bad reputation. People gave him what he wanted because nobody wanted to cross him!
Not content at improving the water system, Barry also campaigned for improving the absolutely abysmal conditions of asylums, prisons, and barracks. Even if he had a temper, Barry was a blessing for the poor and oppressed as he insisted on a basic level of cleanliness for inmates and mental patients. He believed everyone deserved care and would treat whoever was sick. That meant not just colonists, but slaves too; not just the rich, but the poor as well. Barry even became concerned about the lepers’ welfare, which no one else cared about at the time. In short, he was a true medical trailblazer.
Barry was a very competent doctor. In an age when medical professionals could only save either the mother or the child during a c-section, Barry made medical history by performing the first Caesarian Section in Cape Town where both the mother and the child survived. The family he saved were forever grateful and showed their gratitude in the best way they could: They named their baby after Dr. Barry.
Back in 19th century Cape Town, everyone knew three things about James Barry. He was a great doctor, he had a fiery temper, and finally, he was an incorrigible flirt. Maybe Barry really was interested in women, or maybe he just wanted to keep unwanted questions at bay; whatever the reason, ladies loved Dr. Barry. Of course, like a true player, he made sure to step away as soon as he felt any lady was getting even a tiny bit serious. Quite the player, eh!
Remember how Barry would pick fights with anyone who made fun of his high-pitched voice back in university? Well, that hot-headedness became a permanent part of his personality. Unfortunately, it also led to many problems during the good doctor's career. He once challenged a man to a nearly-fatal duel. Fortunately, Barry escaped with a bullet in his thigh. His opponent was saved by his cap—if he hadn't been wearing it, Barry’s bullet would’ve hit him straight in the forehead!
But Barry could afford to be Cape Town's resident Bad Boy. After all, he had friends in high places. Whenever Barry got into trouble, he just counted on the Governor to smooth things over for him. No harm, no foul—but when Barry didn't have a powerful friend nearby, his hot head got him into big trouble and in one case, made him a famous enemy.
Barry was famous for yelling at superiors, fellow officers, and anyone else who crossed him, but people were still surprised that he managed to offend Florence Nightingale. While there aren’t many details on their meeting, which occurred in Crimea when Barry was on leave, Nightingale described him as a "brute" and said he was “the most hardened creature [she] had ever met".
In 1827, Barry got promoted to Surgeon of the Forces and spent a year in Mauritius—until he received some terrible news. His old friend (or maybe more?) Governor Somerset was seriously ill. Risking his job, Barry rushed to England without taking leave from his superiors. Was he confident that he'd be accepted back because of his skill, or was he just not thinking it through? Your guess is as good as mine!
Barry called Somerset “my almost father—my almost only friend". In return, Barry proved to be a good friend to Somerset. He stayed with him when he became sick in 1829 for two years until he passed in 1831. There is speculation that Somerset knew of Barry’s secret and they had a more intimate relationship than they let on, but of course, nobody knows for sure.
After Somerset passed, Barry took a position in Jamaica. It was supposed to be a tropical escape, but nothing could be further from the truth. Once Barry arrived, he was horrified by the terrible conditions in the armed forces' camps. To combat the awful mortality rates, Barry became instrumental in bettering sanitary conditions. But as always, Barry's do-gooder instincts competed with his tendency to start fights wherever he went.
After spending time in Jamaica, Barry went to St. Helena, where his famous temper finally got him into enough trouble to be detained. One source says Barry defied propriety by going straight to a superior without consulting a deputy. The latter was offended, and got Barry court-martialled for “conduct unbecoming to an officer and gentleman". Barry was found not guilty, but apparently, he didn’t learn his lesson.
There aren’t many details about what happened the second time Barry landed in custody. However, from what we do know, it appears that he, once again, he flouted authority. This time, Barry refused to give a captain medical leave. As always, luck was on Barry's side though. He managed to get the charges against him dropped yet again. This leads us to one of the most confusing parts of the doctor's legacy.
On the one hand, Barry was undeniably brash and short-tempered. And yet, on the other, he possessed a wonderful bedside manner. Barry could put his patients at ease and over the course of treatment, they would trust him completely. This was why, despite all of Barry's run-ins with the law, he was such a favorite with his patients, including hard-to-impress folks like Napoleon's right-hand man.
Dressed in an immaculate scarlet coat, buttoned to the top, with sharply polished shoes and not a hair out of place, it was well-known that Dr. James Barry took a great deal of care of his appearance. When asked why he disappeared to England without taking leave from superiors in Jamaica, Barry lived up to his reputation as a dandy. He replied, “I was fed up with my hair and wanted a proper haircut".
Someone make a biopic about Barry stat. He wasn't just a gender-bending doctor, he was also a fascinating eccentric. Barry was a strict teetotaller, an early vegetarian, and a dog lover. He took his pet dog “Psyche” with him everywhere, along with his goat, which Barry personally milked for his dairy supply. When Barry moved to Canada, he'd dress in luxurious furs and drive a bright red sleigh with silver bells around town. In short, the dude was weird.
Barry seems to have been living his best life back in Montreal, Canada, but when he traveled to the West Indies, everything changed for the worse. Barry contracted a brutal case of yellow fever while abroad. In time, his illness became bad enough that Barry had to take sick leave and go to England to recover. Thankfully he got better. No longer ill and relegated to his home office, he returned to duty a few months later, in 1846. With a clean bill of health, Barry went rick back to doing what he did best: Make trouble.
Barry was promoted to Principal Medical Officer while in Jamaica, but that didn’t stop him from starting some drama. During his time in Malta, Barry rolled up to the local church and sat down in a seat reserved for local clergy. It was a big no-no that would have seen anyone else get the boot. But as always, Barry used his signature charm to sweet-talk his way out of trouble.
Barry was incredibly ahead of his time. He vigorously campaigned against slavery and made it clear that he found the whole practice reprehensible. The good doctor also employed surgical methods and practiced what is now known as “preventive medicine," always considering how better living conditions could stop diseases and illnesses from spreading in the first place. Take a bow, Dr. Barry.
While stationed in Canada, Barry was, by this time, getting on in years. As his health failed, Barry refused to stop working. Even as an older man, our doctor dove headfirst into reforming Canada's healthcare system. Barry could not believe that married officers and their wives did not have separate accommodation. He argued that this was unfair on women and would even lead to alcoholism (which was a leading cause of fatality among the troops).
Although Barry faced opposition, he refused to back off. In the end, he got his way: Married couples finally received separate living quarters.
Despite Florence Nightingale's possible sabotage, Barry rose to the rank of Inspector General in Canada, which was equivalent to a Brigadier General. He spent the rest of his time in the great white north making important improvements, like modernizing Quebec's drainage and sanitation systems. He also pushed for adding ovens in barracks so that men could cook and eat more nutritious foods. But in time, Barry would have to leave his achievements in Canada for a tragic reason.
For once in his life, Barry didn't get the boot because he caused a scandal or started a fight. Unfortunately, this time he had to leave his station for a sadder reason: Ill health. Dr. Barry contracted bronchitis and went to England in May 1859, after taking formal leave. In the end, Canada would prove to be his final posting.
After a medical checkup confirmed that Barry was indeed very ill, the army forced him to retire. Never one to accept fate meekly, Barry protested the decision and argued that he could still work—only to have to admit defeat. After a quick visit to Jamaica to visit friends, Dr. Barry settled down to spend the rest of his days as a man of leisure in England.
Dr. Barry may have been a loud and colorful character in life, but his final exit from the world was quiet and sudden. He breathed his last in July 1865, the victim of dysentery.
Here's one more of Barry's impressive achievements: Dude got a job just four days after graduating from medical school! Talk about a wiz kid.
Although much has been written (and is still being written about the good doctor) his story remains controversial. One group wants to claim him as a woman who defied all odds to live life on her own terms. Other people find it offensive to misgender him when he clearly identified as a man and wanted to be known as one until the very end. While you can draw your own conclusions from his story, and choose your own side, what remains an irrefutable fact is that Dr. James Miranda Steuart Barry was one of a kind.
In a way, Barry's legacy lives on in ways that go beyond medicine. Do you remember how Barry performed the cesarean section that allowed both mother and child to live? Well, the mother named her baby James Barry Munnik after the doctor who helped him enter the world. Interestingly, the name kept being passed down in successive generations. One "James Barry" even became the Prime Minister of South Africa, J.B.M. Hertzog in 1924, almost a century later. Safe to say Barry’s name lived on in Cape Town long after he was gone.
Remember how Florence Nightingale, um, didn't love Barry? Well, she might have gotten revenge on her old enemy. Some scholars believe that Barry's final post in Canada was Nightingale’s doing. She personally requested for Barry to be posted there. Why? It ensured that he would never become Director-General or receive the knighthood that came with that position. Ouch.
According to Barry’s last wishes, the doctor wanted to be buried in the clothes he was wearing and specifically did not want anyone to examine his body. It's safe to say that those wishes were not respected. After a doctor identified Barry's body, a maid named Sophia Bishop went to prepare him for burial. As she went about her business, Bishop was stunned to make a surprising discovery about the good doctor.
Certain she’d be paid handsomely to keep the secret to herself, Bishop went straight to Barry’s doctor, Dr. McKinnon, to chide him for never having discovered that Barry was a “perfect female". Unfortunately for her, the doctor refused to be blackmailed. Proving that he was a true friend to Barry, he said that Barry’s gender made no difference.
Bishop wasn’t one to give up easily though, so she did the next best thing: She went straight to the press.
Rumors about Barry spread, but since there was no autopsy, the only witness was the enterprising maid—and people weren’t sure about whether they believed her. The forces sealed all of Barry’s records to try and control the situation but of course, such stories live on. There was enough speculation to rekindle interest in Dr. Barry’s identity almost a century after his passing.
The historian Isobel Rae gained access to army records in the 1950s and South African urologist Dr. Michael di Preez also began to research Barry’s life and times for his book. Both scholars found letters by Margaret Bulkley and were stunned when experts confirmed that the writing was the same as the cursive in letters written by Dr. Barry. But there was further proof to link Margaret to James.
A major piece of evidence was a letter written to the family solicitor, Daniel Reardon. Although signed by “James Barry,” the lawyer was careless enough to write “Miss Bulkley” on the back of the note. It's a good thing that this letter was only discovered after Barry's passing, because I imagine that he would have had some choice words for Mr. Reardon.
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