Dr. James Miranda Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time

In the year 1798 in Cork-Ireland, Margaret Ann Bulkley was born to Jeremiah Bulkley and MaryAnne Bulkley. Margaret was a young, pretty, and energetic lady. She was distinct with her characteristic red-gold hair, blue-green eyes, hooked nose, and small mouth. She was that type of baby everyone would adore and haul praises at. She grew up normally like any other girl-child until she was 13 where she was sexually assaulted by her decadent uncle called Redmond Barry. She conceived and gave birth to a girl who many people got to know as her younger sister due to the nature of their reticent life.

Jeremiah Bulkley made some wrong financial choices that sunk the family deep in debt until his death. Margaret and her mother sailed to London to her maternal uncle called James Barry to seek help for her future. Uncle Barry couldn’t offer much help but through him, his associates who were doctors, lawyers, and diplomats took a paternal interest in Margaret. These associates encouraged her passion for learning.

In the 19th Century, there was utmost discrimination against women in all spheres of life. Since Margret was a woman, she was limited in this respect since only men were allowed to study in British Universities. Her liberal-minded patrons suggested a plan that would allow her into medical school. The plan was that she lived her life as a man. Margaret Ann Bulkley disappeared and James Miranda Steuart Barry came to as a nephew to the late Uncle Irish painter called James Miranda Steuart Barry.

On 30th November 1809, James Barry and his mother sailed to Edinburgh and did an application to the University of Edinburgh and was accepted. He began his studies as a literary and medical student along with hundreds of other male students. The stature of James was short. He had an unbroken voice and was always in an oversized coat. Most men in school suspected him to be a prepubescent boy. These elements made him study through medical school to completion. On the verge of his completion, the University senate thought it wise to postpone his graduation due to his young age. One of Bary’s patrons, the Earl of Buchan persuaded the senate to reconsider and in 1812, Bary received a degree in Medicine.
Immediately after, he was offered an opportunity in Venezuela on the condition that he should revert to being a lady to propagate the idea of equal opportunities for both genders but he turned down the offer.

He went back to London where he practiced and learned from great surgeons at United Hospitals of Guy’s and St Thomas’. He later applied to the army as an assistant surgeon. He successfully passed the exams at the Royal College of Surgeons of England as a protege. By December of 1815, he had been promoted to assistant staff surgeon.

In October of 1816, he was posted by the military to Cape Town in South Africa where he spent ten years that were the highlight of his career. He quickly got a name and became the personal physician of Lieutenant General Lord Charles Henry Somerset, the Governor of Cape Town at the time. They had a blossoming relation that led to him being appointed as the Colonial Medical Inspector. He was a medical practitioner per excellence.
In 1826, the position of Colonial Medical Inspector was abolished and Dr. Barry hence resigned and began to practice medicine privately. One night, he got a call from a distressed mother who was unable to deliver her child normally and therefore needed a cesarean section. Up until that time, cesarean sections had always resulted in the death of the mother or the child or both. There were only three cases where both the mother and child had survived worldwide. Dr. Barry practiced the highest standards of hygiene and precision. The cesarean section that night became the first successful one in Africa and the fourth recorded case where both mother and child survived. The mother to the newborn child named the baby James Barry in honor of the surgeon. As if that wasn’t good enough, the name was passed down to generations and through this, James Barry Munnik Hertzog became the Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa between 1924 and 1939. What are the odds?

In November 1827, Dr. Barry was promoted to sergeant of the Forces and was posted to Mauritius where he did his due diligence.

In 1845 while in Trinidad, he contracted the Yellow Fever virus. Two of the attendants discovered his secret and he persuaded them to keep mum which they did.

Dr. Barry’s final posting was in Montreal, Canada in 1857 as Inspector General of Army Hospitals. He endeavored to fight for the health and living standards of the minorities. While there, his impulsive nature and volatile opinions got him into trouble. He harshly criticized and insulted the Bishop of Montreal as well as other clergy members. This led the Medical Board in London to recall him and forcefully retire him on grounds of ill health and old age.

He spent this time touring the colonies he had been to before, catching up with friends.
The curtains came down for Dr. James Miranda Steuart Barry/Margaret Ann Bulkley on 25th July 1865 at the age of 71 caused by dysentery. Part of his last wish was that he be buried without being washed in the clothes he was in together with bedsheet wrappings to conceal his physical sex even after death. He had lived as James Barry for 56 years and he wanted to be remembered as such. His wish was however ignored by the cleaner who came to lay out the corpse. She revealed Barry’s sex to the press creating a national commotion and confusion like never before.

Dr. James Miranda Steuart Barry/Margaret Ann Bulkley was buried in Kensal Green Cemetry in Northwest London with full military honor.

How should we refer to Dr. Barry? What pronoun should we use and how should we describe his gender?

8 thoughts on “Dr. James Miranda Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time”

  1. Mind blown… He, he wanted that.. He lived like that.. And as you said wanted to be remembered like that. It’s the least we could do.. So Dr James Barry it is for me.

  2. ‘He’ was so brave and ambitious… ‘He’ was not after wealth but knowledge… though am still wondering…’ he’ was not into having ‘his’ own family and to have ‘his’ own generation

  3. Immaculately interesting from the “Good doctor “series how can you heal a world that is upside down Dr.Barry reportedly pretended to be a man in order to practice as a surgeon and yes ….yes my thoughts are Barry is a he cz he got comfortable being one as long as he had a good deed pretending to be one who cares about what was beneath his pants …..loved it Moses .
    Beautiful piece!


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