17. Dr James Barry
When Dr James Barry died in London in 1865, he left behind a remarkable record as a medical doctor and reformer. But today, his reputation is dominated by arguments about his gender identity — do we claim him for the trans* history books or the feminist history books? And is it at all possible to do both?
To start with, Barry was apparently a child genius. After entering the University of Edinburgh in 1809 (at what might possibly have been as young as ten years old — we’re not sure of his exact birth date), he swept through his exams and astonished his teachers with his gifts as a surgeon. He received his MD in 1812, at which point he could still have been as young as thirteen. He later signed up to become an army doctor, and served in (among other locations) India, South Africa and Canada. He performed the first documented caesarian section surgery in South Africa in which both the mother and child lived; he pioneered safe and sanitary living conditions for married soldiers in Canada, and apparently he got thoroughly on Florence Nightingale’s nerves during the Crimean war.
Barry could apparently be a very difficult person to work with — cold, arrogant, boastful and spectacularly rude to his military superiors; on one occasion he’s rumoured to have deserted his post and then sassed the officer who questioned him about it by saying that he left because he needed a haircut. He fought in several duels, and while he was living in South Africa he was also placed under suspicion of having an ‘unnatural and immoral’ affair with the Governor, Lord Charles Somerset (who for his own part described Barry as ‘the most skilful of physicians and most wayward of men’). But he was also a skilled surgeon, an early advocate of sanitary practice in surgeries and hospitals, and a sympathetic doctor who treated his patients with respect.
After Barry’s death, the story suddenly takes a different turn. Throughout his life, Barry had habitually refused to change clothes in front of other people, and had left strict instructions that upon his death, his body was not to be embalmed or ‘laid out’ in any way, but to be buried in whatever clothes he had died in. For whatever reason, these instructions were disregarded: Barry’s body was laid out by a serving-woman named Sophia Bishop. There’s some suggestion that Bishop wasn’t paid fairly for her services — and a few weeks after Barry’s death, newspapers began to publish lurid articles claiming that Barry had been discovered to be ‘secretly a woman’ (see below). On current evidence, it appears that Sophia Bishop reported to others that, on examining Barry’s body, she found it to be biologically female — there’s also some suggestion that Bishop alleged that the body she examined looked as though it had carried a child.
Some of the sources linked below have now pieced together what the writers think happened in Barry’s life before entering university. The woman who brought the young Barry to start medical school at Edinburgh presented herself as his ‘guardian, Mary Ann Bulkley’ — however, it seems likely that Bulkley was in fact Barry’s mother. The records show that Mary Ann Bulkley had one son (named John) and two daughters, and records of the younger daughter, Margaret, disappear at about the time Barry was entering university.
This presents, of course, a fascinating problem for those of us who are trying to do both women’s history and queer history. A lot of mainstream historical writing about Barry (including many of the articles linked to below) now gives Barry female pronouns, and attempts to talk about ‘her’ as a pioneering female doctor. Barry is also sometimes given the middle name ‘Miranda’, presumably after Francisco de Miranda, one of his early patrons. There’s a drive to read Barry’s story as that of a woman who adopted a male persona in order to succeed in the field of medicine — the Oxford DNB describes Barry as ‘not only the youngest but technically the first woman in Great Britain to graduate in medicine, an honour usually accorded to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who graduated in 1865, the year of Barry’s death’. A feature film, Heaven and Earth, is currently in production about Barry’s alleged ‘secret affair’ with Somerset — I don’t actually have much information on the film, but I suspect that it will be treated as a heterosexual affair.
However, to me this seems slightly problematic. When writing about Eleanor / John Rykener earlier in this series, I felt that it was very difficult to assign pronouns to that person, because we have so little information about how they themselves actually identified — I don’t see this problem with Barry at all: he seems to have been very unambiguous about wanting to be perceived and referred to as a man (up to and including after his death). Of course, one could also argue that this was only because Barry knew that it would not be possible to practice as a surgeon without being seen as male — on the other hand, do his reasons for ID’ing as male ultimately matter (after all, we’re not going to get access to them now short of holding a seance in any case)…? Should we simply respect his identification regardless of where (we think) it comes from?
There have also been suggestions that Barry was intersexed, and a lot of focus on his gender presentation. Here’s the DNB again (pronouns are theirs):
Wherever Barry served there was immense respect for her medical skills, but her lack of diplomacy inevitably resulted in conflict with colleagues and authorities. She invariably championed the neglected and oppressed of any race or station in life. Prisons, leper colonies, and indigent patients always received her attention, and she never accepted fees for her private practice. Her appearance always attracted attention, for she was tiny, with small, soft hands, and a high squeaky voice; her flamboyant dress added to the impression of effeminacy. In every posting suspicion arose regarding either her gender or sexuality, but she behaved flirtatiously with attractive women, and at least one husband suspected her of paying improper attentions to his wife.
It’s interesting to note that while many people stepped forward after Barry was ‘outed’ to say that they ‘knew all along’, those who were closest to him generally weren’t part of this number. Despite his eccentricities, there doesn’t seem to be any doubt that Barry was accepted as male by most of the people that he worked with throughout his adult life. As Hamish at ‘The Drummer’s Revenge’ blog puts it:
... what if Margaret Bulkley didn’t adopt a male identity because “she” was partially male-bodied, or because “she” simply wanted male privilege, but simply because “she” felt herself to be a man? And, if so, how many others were there out there who successfully “passed?”
Today, I’m torn between being very glad as a historian to have access to Barry’s story, and horrified (with the part of me that knows exactly how wrong and unjust it is for a trans* person to be outed in this way) that it was revealed and spread around in the way that it was. I think he’s a very powerful figure to have in our collective past — a duel-fighting, superior-snarking, Nightingale-annoying, life-saving person to look back on and, at least in my case, admire.
Scan of a contemporary newspaper article published shortly after Barry’s death: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=THD18651125.2.19&dliv=&e=———-10—1——0—
Excerpt from a contemporary newspaper article published shortly after Barry’s death: http://www.redpepper.org.uk/25-July/
Blog post at ‘The Drummer’s Revenge’: http://thedrummersrevenge.wordpress.com/2007/12/02/dr-james-miranda-barry/
Archived article from the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh: http://web.archive.org/web/20070928004833/http://www.rcpe.ac.uk/publications/articles/vol31_no4/R_The_Life.pdf
Archived article from US Medicine magazine: http://web.archive.org/web/20070928030206/http://www.usmedicine.com/column.cfm?columnID=53&issueID=28 (warning: contains some mangling of pronouns and other fail regarding Barry’s gender and potential sexual orientation).
Profile at ‘A Gender Variance Who’s Who’: http://zagria.blogspot.co.uk/2008/01/james-miranda-stuart-barry-1795-1865.html
Oxford DNB article (requires subscription): http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/1563 (Brandon, Sydney. “Barry, James (c.1799–1865).” Sydney Brandon, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. Jan. 2008. 9 Dec. 2012 <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/1563>).
IMDB page for ‘Heaven and Earth’: http://uk.imdb.com/title/tt0377458/
Wikipedia bio: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Barry_(surgeon)
Hattip to thoughtfulrat, who asked for this post!