The Extraordinary Secret Life of Dr. James Barry

The Extraordinary Secret Life of Dr. James Barry

Dr. James Barry was actually born Margaret Ann Bulky around 1789 in County Cork, Ireland, at a time when women were barred from most formal education, and were certainly not allowed to practice medicine. She was the second child of Jeremiah (a grocer) and Mary-Ann Bulky. While still a teenager, it is believed that Margaret was raped by an uncle. She gave birth to a baby, Juliana, who was raised by her mother.

Margaret was interested in pursuing an education, and doing something beyond the realm of what was allowed of her gender. In the 2016 book, James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time, authors Dr. Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield recount a story from when Margaret was 18, where she openly chastised her spendthrift brother saying, “Were I not a girl, I would be a solider!” And a solider she would be.

When her family fell on hard times, Margaret (who was in her late teens) moved with her mother to London, where Mary Ann had a brother—James Barry, a Royal Academician and painter. The two women met Barry’s friends, including the Venezuelan-exile General Francisco de Miranda and David Steuart Erskine, the Earl of Buchan. They were impressed by young Margaret, knowing her intelligence could take her far. They likely played a role in hatching the plan for Margaret to pursue an education, and specifically, a career in medicine. The original James Barry died in 1806, leaving his sister and niece enough money to set them up—and his name up for grabs.

Three years later, Margaret Bulky no longer existed. Clad in an overcoat (that was worn at all times regardless of the weather), 3-inch high shoe inserts and a distinctive high-pitched voice, Margaret now identified as James Barry. Moving to Edinburgh, the young Barry enrolled in medical school in 1809 and altered his age to match his young, boyish look. Rumors flew, as Barry’s short stature, high voice, slight build and smooth skin caused many people to suspect that he was a child too young to be in medical school—but Barry never broke. When Barry wasn’t allowed to sit for examinations because they suspected he was too young, Lord Erskine intervened. The soon-to-be doctor received a degree in medicine at the age of 22. Barry enlisted in the army as an assistant surgeon where once again his age was called into question, but he was eventually allowed to serve.

Barry began his military career on July 6, 1813, as a Hospital Assistant in the British Army, and was soon promoted to Assistant Staff Surgeon, equivalent to lieutenant. He then served in Cape Town, South Africa, for 10 years where he befriended the governor, Lord Charles Somerset. Some believe Somerset knew Barry’s secret. The two grew close, and Barry moved into a private apartment at his residence. Rumors circulated about the nature of their relationship and a poster was hung by an anonymous accuser stating that Somerset was “buggering Dr. Barry.” Commissions were set up to investigate the scandal, but both parties were later exonerated.

Perhaps to take on a more stereotypical, brash masculine personality, or maybe because it was actually his true nature, Barry was known for his short, hot temper. Patients, superiors, army captains and even Florence Nightingale herself were on the receiving end of his anger. He threw medicine bottles and even participated in a duel, where thankfully neither party was seriously injured.

Barry’s medical skills were unprecedented. He was a very skilled surgeon, the first to perform a successful caesarean section were both the mother and child survived. He was also dedicated to social reform, speaking out against the sanitary conditions and mismanagement of barracks, prisons and asylums. During his 10-year stay, he arranged for a better water system for Cape Town. As a doctor, he treated the rich and the poor, the colonists and the slaves.

Barry’s next posting was to Mauritius in 1828 where he butted heads with a fellow army surgeon who had him arrested and court-martialed on a charge of “conduct unbecoming of the character of an Officer and a Gentleman.” He was found not guilty. Barry moved wherever his service was needed, continuing to climb the ranks as he traveled the world. In 1857, he reached the rank of Inspector General in charge of military hospitals—equivalent to Brigadier General. In that position, he continued his fight for proper sanitation, also arguing for better food and proper medical care for prisoners and lepers, as well as soldiers and their families.

Dr. James Barry died from dysentery on July 25, 1865. They say on his deathbed acquaintances were waiting for a secret to be revealed—some saying they had guessed it all along. Barry’s last wishes were to be buried in the clothes he died in, without his body being washed—wishes that were not followed. When the nurse undressed the body to prepare it for burial, she discovered two things: female anatomy and tell-tale stretch marks from pregnancy.

The secret was made public after an exchange of letters between the General Register Office and Barry’s doctor, Major D. R. McKinnon, were leaked. In these letters, Major McKinnon, who signed the death certificate, said it was “none of my business” whether Dr. James Barry was male or female—a statement Barry himself probably would have agreed with.

Dr. James Barry is buried in Kensal Green cemetery, in north-west London. One thing remains for sure, Dr. James Barry was way ahead of his time—as a doctor and a humanitarian.


James Barry (surgeon)

James Miranda Steuart Barry [6] (c. 1789 [a] – 25 July 1865) was a military surgeon in the British Army, born in Cork, Ireland. Barry obtained a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh Medical School, then served first in Cape Town, South Africa, and subsequently in many parts of the British Empire. Before retirement, Barry had risen to the rank of Inspector General (equivalent to Brigadier) in charge of military hospitals, the second highest medical office in the British Army. Barry not only improved conditions for wounded soldiers, but also the conditions of the native inhabitants, and performed the first recorded caesarean section by a European in Africa in which both the mother and child survived the operation. [7]

Although Barry's entire adult life was lived as a man, Barry was named Margaret Ann Bulkley [8] at birth and was known as female in childhood. Barry lived as a man in both public and private life, at least in part in order to be accepted as a university student, and to pursue a career as a surgeon. Barry's birth sex became known to the public and to military colleagues only after a post-mortem examination. [7]


James Barry

James Miranda Steuart Barry, FRS (probably born Margaret Anne Bulkley), military surgeon, physician (born c. 1789–99 died 25 July 1865 in London, England). Posted across the British Empire, Barry reformed medical standards in the British army. His final and highest-ranking position was as inspector-general of military hospitals in the Province of Canada in the 1850s. After his death, it was reported that Barry’s assigned sex at birth was female. This has sparked significant debate about his identity.

Note on pronouns: This article refers to James Barry with masculine pronouns, as this was how Barry referred to himself throughout his life.

Click here for definitions of key terms used in this article.


Photograph of Dr. James Barry, c. 1840s.

Early Life and Education

James Barry first appears on record in 1809. This was shortly before he enrolled at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland) to study medicine. It is widely believed that Barry was born Margaret Anne Bulkley, to Mary Anne and Jeremiah Bulkley of Cork, Ireland around 1789. Margaret Bulkley disappears from record shortly before James Barry appears. Additionally, handwriting analysis of their letters suggests a match.

Barry’s vague and sometimes conflicting statements about his childhood have also raised questions about his identity at birth. He made inconsistent references to his birthdate, for example.

When Barry began his studies at the University of Edinburgh, only men were admitted. Many believe this is why Barry took on a male identity. Barry graduated with a Doctor of Medicine in 1812, submitting a final thesis on femoral hernias (a less common type of hernia that occurs most often in older women). He then returned to London and took more courses in surgery and anatomy. These were relatively new fields at the time. Barry was admitted to the Royal College of Surgeons in London in early 1813.

Other evidence historians have cited to link Bulkley to Barry

–A Royal Academy artist named James Barry was probably Margaret’s uncle. He introduced his young relative to Venezuelan revolutionary General Francisco de Miranda and David Steuart Erskine, Lord Buchan. These connections gave the aspiring doctor credibility. They also appear to have inspired his names. James Barry the artist died in 1806 and his money made it possible for James Miranda Steuart Barry to pay for university. –Mary Anne Bulkley accompanied Barry while in Edinburgh, supposedly as his aunt. Barry once introduced her as his mother, however. –In a letter to General de Miranda, Barry asks him not to mention Margaret Bulkley: “As Lord B— nor anyone here knows anything about Mrs Bulkley’s Daughter, I trust my dear General that neither you nor the Doctor will mention in any of your correspondence anything bout my Cousin’s friendship and care for me.”

–In a letter, Margaret Bulkley once expressed her desire to serve in the army, as Barry would do: “Was I not a girl I would be a soldier!”

Army Medical Career

James Barry passed the Army Medical Board oral exam in July 1813. He began his army career as an assistant in military hospitals in Chelsea and Plymouth, England. After two years, he received his first overseas posting to the Cape Colony (now South Africa). This began a long, distinguished and at times stormy career across the British Empire. Wherever he was posted, Barry fought to improve hygiene, sanitation and medical standards ( see also Public Health).

Miniature portrait of James Barry, painted between 1813 and 1816, before his first posting abroad.

(The South African Medical Journal/public domain)

Barry arrived in Cape Town in 1816. Over the course of 12 years, he worked his way from assistant surgeon to colonial medical inspector, physician to the governor’s household and inspector for many public institutions. He bettered the treatment of prisoners, people with leprosy and patients in asylums. He also tightened regulations for giving drugs to patients. His push for reform, short temper and vocal discontent with red tape often landed him in trouble. He was demoted, arrested and even fought a duel with an army captain.

After Cape Town, Barry took up postings in Mauritius and then Jamaica. In Jamaica, his reforms led to a drop in the number of deaths in military camps. He saw his first front-line military action during the Great Slave Revolt in Jamaica in 1831–32.

His next posting was as principal medical officer (PMO) in St. Helena. He was arrested twice during his two years on the island. The first arrest occurred after Barry offended a deputy by going over his head to a superior. Barry was found not guilty of “conduct unbecoming to an officer and gentleman” after a court martial (military trial) (see also Military Justice System).

There are few records of the second incident in St. Helena. It appears, however, that Barry was arrested for refusing to obey authority when he did not approve the medical leave of a healthy regiment captain. Barry was sent back to England under military arrest. He was soon cleared of the charges.

He continued his career in the West Indies, working his way to PMO of Trinidad. After recovering from an illness in England, Barry was PMO once again, this time in Malta. After that, he was deputy inspector-general of hospitals in Corfu. During the Crimean War, Barry organized a hospital for injured soldiers in Corfu.

Inspector-General of Military Hospitals in Canada

In 1857, James Barry was posted to the Province of Canada. He arrived in Montreal on 3 November. In Canada, he attained the highest rank for medical officers in the military: inspector-general of military hospitals. He was now likely in his midsixties. Having spent the first 45 years of his career in hot climates, Barry noted this posting was “to cool myself after such a long residence in the tropics and hot countries.” This was a nod to the trouble he often found himself in. As inspector-general of hospitals, Barry oversaw barracks and hospitals in Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto and Kingston. As he had done in his previous postings, he began to reform health-care standards in the military.

The province of Canada [cartographic material], Publisher: James Wyld, England, 1843. Library and Archives Canada

Barry brought more variety to the soldiers’ diets and rations. He pressed for ovens in the cookhouses of barracks so that staff could cook a wider range of foods. A stickler for sanitation, he improved the drainage and sewer systems in the Quebec barracks. When he arrived in Canada, married soldiers and their wives did not have separate sleeping quarters. Instead, they lived in the barracks with the other soldiers. Barry believed that living among 10 or 20 men was degrading for women and would lead to alcoholism. He therefore established married quarters to provide privacy for families.

Barry wintered in Montreal during his time in the Province of Canada. He was known for travelling through the city wrapped in furs on a red sleigh with silver bells. He became a member of the St. James Club, an elite Montreal gentlemen’s club. In 1858, Barry fell ill with bronchitis and/or the flu. He took a temporary leave from work in April 1859 and returned to England that May.

Later Life and Death

Photograph of Dr. James Barry in old age with a servant and a dog.

(courtesy Wellcome Library, London/Wellcome Images CC)

In England, the Medical Board declared James Barry unfit for service because of ill heath. He argued for reinstatement — “I am now prepared to serve Her Majesty in any quarter of the Globe to which I may be sent” — but did not succeed. By the end of his career, Barry was the most senior inspector-general of hospitals in the British army.

He returned to Jamaica one last time to visit friends and lived the last years of his life in London. Barry died on 25 July 1865, victim of a diarrhea outbreak.

Barry had previously asked to be buried in the clothes he died in, without further inspection of his body. However, his corpse was prepared for burial by a servant. Shortly after his death and burial, the servant approached the army claiming she had not been paid her services. She also made a serious claim: in laying out the body, she had discovered Barry to have “a perfect female body” and stretch marks possibly indicating that Barry had given birth.

The doctor who had signed Barry’s death certificate had not examined his body after death. Having known Barry for several years, he had been able to identify the body without doing so. When the servant insisted to the doctor that Barry was female, he thought that Barry may have been a hermaphrodite (now referred to as intersex).

The servant likely came forward with this story hoping to be paid to keep Barry’s secret. However, the news that Barry had been assigned female at birth quickly spread in military circles. The story was first published in a Dublin newspaper on 14 August 1865: “upon his death was discovered to be a woman!” Within a week, the story had been picked up by multiple newspapers in Britain, and it then spread worldwide. At this point, some people who had known Barry claimed they had always suspected him to be a woman. Others claimed they had known, but kept it secret at Barry’s request.

How should we think and talk about Trans and Non-Binary people who lived well before those terms existed? This Secret Life of Canada episode we explores that question through the story of Dr. James Barry, a celebrated military surgeon. With the help of Dr. Aaron Devor, Chair of Transgender Studies at the University of Victoria, they also learn how Victoria B.C. ended up with the world's largest Transgender archives. For more information about the archives visit uvic.ca/transgenderarchives

Note: The Secret Life of Canada is hosted and written by Falen Johnson and Leah Simone Bowen and is a CBC original podcast independent of The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Debate about James Barry’s Identity

Historians and scholars have proposed various theories to explain the servant’s claim that Barry had been assigned female at birth. The most popular theory is that Barry was a woman who disguised herself as a man to pursue a medical education and military career at a time when women couldn’t. In this version of events, Barry is seen as a pioneer for women in medicine (see also Collection: Women in STEM). Barry earned an MD at a time when women were not allowed to study at university. Some scholars view Barry as the first woman to practise medicine professionally in Britain and Canada. (See also History of Medicine to 1950.)

Other scholars believe that Barry was intersex. The doctor who attended to him at this death was the first to suggest this idea. As no post-mortem examination was conducted and Barry was buried soon after his death, there is little evidence to support this theory. It is also possible that the servant was mistaken or lying, and that Barry was a cisgender male.

The theory that Barry was a transgender male has become popular, but that idea has been largely ignored by historians. Those arguing for this theory point out that Barry referred to himself with male pronouns (he/him). He also spent 50 years living as a man and asked that no one examine his body after death. When Barry was accused of sodomy (at that time, a crime) in Cape Town, he did not try to defend himself by arguing that he was assigned female at birth.

While there is no agreement on the exact nature of James Barry’s identity and there likely never will be, his achievements are clear and well documented. Barry’s work was central to reforming military medical standards in Canada and across the British Empire.


New novel about Dr James Barry sparks row over Victorian's gender identity

A debate about the gender identity of Dr James Barry, the pioneering Victorian who adopted a male persona to become the UK’s first female-born doctor, has erupted after the award-winning author EJ Levy was accused of disrespecting Barry’s legacy by using female pronouns in a forthcoming novel.

Levy announced last week that she had sold a novel about the “true story” of Barry, titled The Cape Doctor. The forthcoming book, which will be released by Little, Brown, will trace Barry’s life story: born Margaret Ann Bulkley in Ireland, the future doctor became Barry at the age of 20 and left for Edinburgh to study medicine as a man. Barry joined the army after graduation, the start of a distinguished career as a military surgeon that spanned Cape Town, St Helena and Trinidad and Tobago. In 1865, Barry returned to the UK with dysentery, and died. A maid discovered the doctor’s biological gender after the death.

When Levy, winner of the Flannery O’Connor award, announced the news of her novel by describing Barry as “a heroine for our time, for all time”, other authors began to question Levy’s reference to Barry as “she”, including novelist Celeste Ng, who told Levy: “I’m now seeing you use she/her pronouns for Barry even as many are telling you Barry himself used and wanted he/him pronouns. I hope you and L,B will listen to these concerns and take them into account.”

Transgender performance poet Jay Hulme called Levy’s position “abhorrent”, while writer Alexandra Erin tweeted: “He categorised himself as a man, lived as a man, died as a man, and would have preferred to be buried as a man. There’s no room for interpretation.”

Levy, who identifies as queer, defended her use of female pronouns in the novel. “In death, as in life, Dr Barry engenders controversy, but one thing is clear: she refused facile gender categories. So do I, in my novel,” she wrote on Twitter. “I work from historical facts, as do Barry’s biographers, who identify her as she … I’ve read and researched for years. To insist Barry is trans distorts complex history … There’s no evidence Barry considered herself trans she dressed as [a] man as needed to be [a] soldier, doctor … Shifting readings of her body are what my novel wrestles with it’s been taken into account I use she/her as her biographers do.”

Barry’s gender identity has been overwhelmingly framed as female by writers over the past 150 years, said Cardiff University professor Ann Heilmann, author of Neo-/Victorian Biographilia and James Miranda Barry: A Study in Transgender and Transgenre, exceptions being Patricia Duncker’s 1999 novel James Miranda Barry and Rachel Holmes’s 2002 biography The Secret Life of Dr James Barry.

Heilmann said she believed Barry “felt” male, adding: “But whether he had always ‘felt male’ during his earlier female years (he changed identity at age 20), who knows? … Much of what we ‘know’ about him is really the Barry myth – that is, culturally constructed legend, based on hearsay, fiction and fiction-inflected biography.”

The Cardiff academic said that while it was possible that Barry’s initial decision to assume a male identity was driven by a wish for an independent life and career in medicine, her impression was that “he then ‘became’ male in terms of his inner (and not only outer) … identity. That would still make him trans in today’s terms, and I approached the real-life character as a trans person”.

“While I understand that emotions run very high (understandably so, given the difficulties trans people face and in light of ongoing tensions between feminism and the trans community), I don’t think that Barry can be that easily mapped on to contemporary trans thought,” she said. “Though of course there have always been trans people, the lived and felt gender identity of an 18th and early 19th-century person would have been very different from our contemporary identity politics.”

Holmes said that using female pronouns for Barry was “really quite disrespectful”.

“As a young feminist when I set out to write this book, which was based on PhD research, I thought I was writing a story of a woman who cross-dressed in search of fame and fortune because she couldn’t become a doctor wearing skirts. I was struck very quickly when I started doing research that this wasn’t the case at all,” she said.

Holmes’s biography identifies Barry as having androgen insensitivity syndrome, which the NHS defines as describing a child who is genetically male, but whose genitals appear female or somewhere between male and female.

“It is perfectly clear that Barry had ASS and effectively would now be a trans person. He didn’t have the language or the science, but he was looking for it,” Holmes said. “This is someone who fought his whole life for that identity, and understood himself to be betwixt and between.”


&aposThe Perfect Gentleman&apos is a brief book that makes an excellent counterpoint to the novel &aposJames Miranda Barry&apos by Patricia Duncker. Both concern the same extraordinary doctor. Unlike the novel, this biography does not speculate on James Miranda Barry&aposs early life or emotional connections, but concentrates on his career. Although the impressiveness of this came out in the novel, it is even more powerfully presented in &aposThe Perfect Gentleman&apos. Barry was astoundingly ahead of his time in medical t 'The Perfect Gentleman' is a brief book that makes an excellent counterpoint to the novel 'James Miranda Barry' by Patricia Duncker. Both concern the same extraordinary doctor. Unlike the novel, this biography does not speculate on James Miranda Barry's early life or emotional connections, but concentrates on his career. Although the impressiveness of this came out in the novel, it is even more powerfully presented in 'The Perfect Gentleman'. Barry was astoundingly ahead of his time in medical terms, not to mention his compassionate views on the treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill. Rose uses copious quotes from correspondence to demonstrate Barry's tireless battles with intransigent, oft-incompetent bureaucracy. He comes off as an incredibly brave, uncompromising, and admirable figure who made a huge difference wherever he worked.

As an aside, it seems somehow more respectful to refer to Barry with male pronouns, as he lived his life as a man. To impose female pronouns, as Rose does throughout, seems not to reflect the life Barry chose. Although neither the novel nor biography mention the possibility explicitly, it does not seem impossible that Barry was a trans man. Interestingly, in the novel even those who know that Barry was born female use male pronouns. Barry's mother does so even before Barry begins to present as male.

A tantalisingly brief anecdote that I found especially fascinating in this book concerns Barry's meeting with Florence Nightingale. The two did not get on at all, although it seems they had an astonishing amount in common. Both devoted their lives to improvement and reform for medical facilities, especially military hospitals. Both emphasised the need for hygiene above all and compassionate care for patients. And both were females in an utterly male-dominated environment. The routes that they took to achieve their aims are fascinating to compare. They can even be taken to exemplify the differing challenges facing women seeking to deal with sexism by emphasising their stereotypically masculine or feminine traits. As it turned out, Florence Nightingale is the one remembered by history as having achieved more, but Barry managed astonishing things too.

As in the novel, I found Barry to be a fascinating and sympathetic character. Rose manages not to be tempted into too much speculation about Barry's possible relationships, largely confining herself to the reasonable comment that Barry must have experienced considerable loneliness. Even leaving aside the issue of gender, Barry's professional attitudes and beliefs made him an iconoclast. Although very popular with patients, his superiors and colleagues tended to find him difficult. Reading 'A Perfect Gentleman' reinforced my view of the novel 'James Miranda Barry', that the lack of a confidante and friend, such as the novel created for him in Alice, made me sad for Barry. Of course, much of his life remains wholly mysterious, so there may have been such a person or persons. On the one hand, I'd love to know more about his background and personal life, but on the other this seems rude to his memory. It is clear from Rose's book that Barry considered his medical career and the good that it did for humanity as paramount in his life. That, rather than prurient speculation, should surely be his legacy.

What this book did cause me to wonder, though, is how many other women passed as men whilst femininity was a barrier to practising professions. Barry managed it throughout his life, his formidable intellect and utter competence apparently compensating for very small stature and effeminate looks. Surely he was not the only one? I'd like to think that, though we may not know exactly who they were, plenty of women managed to infiltrate professions that were the preserve of men. If I'd had the bad luck to have been born two hundred years ago, I'm pretty sure that I would have given it a try. . more



I found the beginning of the book (Barry&aposs early years in medical school), and the end of the book (an in-depth discussion about Barry&aposs sexual identity) very boring. I thoroughly enjoyed the middle of the book though - discussing Barry&aposs life and career in Cape Town, St. Helena,the West Indies and Corfu.

He was an amazingly good doctor and administrator, with great humanitarian leanings. He cared for those at the bottom of society - prostitutes, prisoners and lepers, as well as for his more hig I found the beginning of the book (Barry's early years in medical school), and the end of the book (an in-depth discussion about Barry's sexual identity) very boring. I thoroughly enjoyed the middle of the book though - discussing Barry's life and career in Cape Town, St. Helena,the West Indies and Corfu.

He was an amazingly good doctor and administrator, with great humanitarian leanings. He cared for those at the bottom of society - prostitutes, prisoners and lepers, as well as for his more high ranking clients, and worked tirelessly to improve their access to better conditions and good medical treatment. He was also a great surgeon - performing a particular operation in Cape Town that was absolutely mind boggling, and his researches as a doctor were fascinating too.

I started this book because I was interested in the phenomenon of a 19th century woman masquerading as a man, and practicing as a doctor. By the end of the book I found his sexual identity almost irrelevant - swamped by the amazing stories of his achievements as a doctor.

I refer to Barry as a male here because having reached the end of the book, and in spite of all the conjecture, I feel his sexuality is still far from being proved - male, female, or in between.

Most of all it was a good read about a marvellous doctor. . more

This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. The "astonishing secret" in is that James Barry was a hermaphrodite, or perhaps a woman. This revelation comes at the end of a fairly standard biography of this pioneering Victorian surgeon. Barry was of interest beyond questions of his/her gender -- he tirelessly campaigned for important medical reforms and innovated new medical procedures. An advocate for the poor and neglected, Barry practiced in several colonies as well as in the military, rising to a position of prominence. Barry was a note The "astonishing secret" in is that James Barry was a hermaphrodite, or perhaps a woman. This revelation comes at the end of a fairly standard biography of this pioneering Victorian surgeon. Barry was of interest beyond questions of his/her gender -- he tirelessly campaigned for important medical reforms and innovated new medical procedures. An advocate for the poor and neglected, Barry practiced in several colonies as well as in the military, rising to a position of prominence. Barry was a noted dandy of his time, given to wearing tight breeches, red high heels, and embroidered shirts and velvet jackets. His lifestyle gave rise to the swirl of rumors that surrounded his life and continued long after his death.

Unfortunately, this biography is not as fascinating as the title implies. Holmes' style is a bit academic, and her construction of the case that Barry was a hermaphrodite rather labored. Barry's gender is one of those issues that will exasperatingly probably never be settled, as others have argued that Barry was a woman.

When I started reading this biography, it didn&apost really hold my attention. This is no reflection on the writing, which is very good, but rather that I&aposd already read &aposThe Perfect Gentleman&apos by June Rose, also a biography of Dr James Barry. Until three-quarters of the way through Holmes&apos biography, it is quite a straightforward account of Dr Barry&aposs life and accomplishments interesting, but not new to me. What this biography adds, and takes it up to four stars, is the last sixty pages. &aposThe Perf When I started reading this biography, it didn't really hold my attention. This is no reflection on the writing, which is very good, but rather that I'd already read 'The Perfect Gentleman' by June Rose, also a biography of Dr James Barry. Until three-quarters of the way through Holmes' biography, it is quite a straightforward account of Dr Barry's life and accomplishments interesting, but not new to me. What this biography adds, and takes it up to four stars, is the last sixty pages. 'The Perfect Gentleman' treats Dr Barry as unequivocally female and expresses sorrow at the lonely life 'she' must have had as a consequence of this deception. By contrast, 'The Secret Life of Dr James Barry', written 25 years later, engages with the difficulty of assigning Dr James Barry a sex, a gender, and appropriate pronouns. I really appreciated this discussion, as the use of 'she' and 'her' in 'The Perfect Gentleman' troubled me (as I mentioned in my review). Holmes devotes time to views of gender, sex, and intersexuality at the time Dr James Barry lived, relating this to Barry's medical degree thesis on hernia. I found this section fascinating and felt that it struck the right note. These particular examples stood out:

'The telling of James Barry's story is a struggle with pronouns, just as Barry's life was a struggle with pronouns. How limited English seems in allowing us only a male 'he', a female 'she', or a dehumanising, debasing 'it'.'

'The view of men and women as divided by an uncrossable binary division is a very twentieth century conceit, inherited from the Victorians, who were great lovers of organising their culture- and other people- around binary divisions and rigid classifications.'

'What I quickly discovered was that Barry himself did not seem to think that his sex was the most important thing about his own life. James Barry was much more than the sum of his physical parts. His body conditioned his experiences, but it did not finally determine who he was or what he achieved.'

'The secret of Barry's success in presenting himself to the world as a man lay in his knowledge that gender was a matter of entitlement: Barry acted this entitlement in every gesture. '

In addition, the final pages comment on the obsession, even now, of reducing Barry's sex to male or female, as if this will reveal the essential truth about him. This part is too long to quote, but excellently articulated. Holmes correctly, to my mind, feels some discomfort with this rather prurient endeavour, which says much more about current prejudices around sex and gender than anything else.

Considering that the book concludes in this way, I find some ironic amusement in the jacket design. For a start, it is pink, which seems to imply a rather more binary view of Barry's sex. Moreover, one of the cover quotes (from the Daily Express) describes the book as, 'Thrillingly romantic'. I could have allowed capital-r Romantic, given that was a cultural tendency of the time that Barry to some extent reflected. But to call Barry's life 'romantic' seems extraordinary, given that the evidence strongly suggests he was single throughout his life. Perhaps I am being unduly sensitive, however that quote reminds me of the constant definition and description of feminine persons in relation to their romantic associations. Use of this word seems especially unfair in Barry's case, given the staggering achievements of his medical career. His life deserves to be described as inspiring, impressive, and ground-breaking, not romantic. The other blurb quotes strike the former note, making the Express one seem all the more jarring. After reading 'The Secret Life of Dr James Barry', I appreciate and sympathise with him more than ever. What a hero. . more


‘Female husbands’: the secret lives of 18th-century transgender pioneers

A respected tavernkeeper who served thirsty locals for decades. A hardworking dockhand. A skilled hunter, teacher and writer. All of these diverse characters had one thing in common: they were known as ‘female husbands’. Jen Manion introduces the pioneering transgender individuals who challenged social norms.

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Published: February 1, 2021 at 5:00 pm

The transgender rights movement has achieved widespread visibility and recognition in the past decade. For some people, this issue seems very new and modern – a 21st-century development. They reminisce of earlier times, perhaps their own childhoods, when most people accepted the distinct expectations and opportunities outlined for boys and girls. In hindsight, the movements for women’s rights or gay and lesbian equality seem modest in their critique of gender: none demanded the eradication of the distinction between men and women in public spaces, an ability to change one’s sex legally or medically, or a shift away from gendered language towards gender-neutral terms such as ‘they’.

From this perspective, the demands of the transgender rights movement seem novel, as if the emergence of the community itself was triggered by the dawn of a new century and little else. But exploring the history of ‘transing’ gender shows us that nothing could be further from the truth. While the transgender community in recent years has somewhat coalesced around a certain set of experiences, concerns and language, an exploration of historical instances of transing reveals that people took a wide range of paths in challenging gender.

One particular branch that caught my eye as I began researching this topic many years ago was a group of people called ‘female husbands’. This term was used to describe someone who was assigned female at birth, transed genders, lived as a man and married a woman. The phrase was used first in the UK in 1746, circulating throughout the UK and the US during the 19th century, then fading from prominent usage in the early years of the 20th century. The turn of the 21st century has been designated the ‘transgender tipping point’, in part due to highly visible trans women celebrities such as Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner. Turn back the clock to the 18th and 19th centuries, though, and we find an era that belonged to female husbands such as Charles Hamilton, James Howe, James Allen and Joseph Lobdell. But who were they – and why should we care?

Hamilton, Howe, Allen and Lobdell each grew up poor and learned to scrape together a living to support themself, even in their youth. Each found love at least once in their life. For some, it was fleeting, as unsuspecting lovers rejected them for their difference. For others, the spark of love led to marriages lasting 20 years or more. Most of them were known only as men, the origins of their assigned sex undetected by neighbours and co-workers for decades. Some embraced nonbinary genders, moving between expressions of manhood and womanhood as required by desire or circumstance. All were described as ‘female husbands’ by reporters and publishers seeking to attract readers with enticing and original stories.

In the writing of their lives, I decided to embrace the newly popular and increasingly accepted pronoun singular ‘they’ when referring to husbands in the third person. This was a difficult decision, inspired by dozens of conversations with students and colleagues about the merits and pitfalls. ‘They’ seemed the perfect way to honour these extraordinary lives that never fit neatly into the box of ‘man’ or ‘woman’, and will make the past legible and relatable to contemporary transgender and nonbinary readers – a group that has long been denied a history of their own.

English playwright and novelist Henry Fielding first popularised the phrase ‘female husband’ in reference to someone assigned female who lived as a man and married a woman. His fictionalised essay ‘The Female Husband’ (1746) was based on the real case of the charismatic mountebank Charles Hamilton and their bride, Mary Price.

We can only speculate as to what drew the pair together in the first place. Charles was affable, charming and outgoing, living a life mostly on the road. Mary proved herself to be confident, strong and assertive. She was probably bored living with her aunt, who rented rooms for extra income – which is how the travelling quack doctor came into her life in the first place.

But the excitement and anticipation of young love was short-lived. After about two months of marriage in 1746, Mary decided that she did not want to be with Charles. It may have been that she realised for the first time that her husband was no ordinary man at least, that is what she told authorities.

We know this from records drawn up in Glastonbury, about six miles from Mary’s home in Wells. The court there charged Charles with vagrancy, a category of crime that was vague and flexible, and often used in cases in which the transgression was highly subjective, concerning morals and norms. The judge found Charles guilty of fraud and declared them “an uncommon, notorious cheat”. They were sentenced to six months of hard labour in prison and public whipping in the four different towns in which Charles was known to have lived: Taunton, Glastonbury, Wells and Shepton Mallet. The punishment was quite severe, especially because the court struggled to even determine which law Charles had actually violated. But the ruling sent a strong message: transing gender and marrying a woman would be met with swift and severe punishment.

Denying difference

News of such punishments, however, did not deter others from transing gender. James Howe ran the White Horse Tavern in the Poplar district of London’s East End with their wife, Mary, for more than 20 years from around 1740. Both James and Mary had grown up poor, and were put out to work by their families as teenagers. They worked on their feet at physically demanding labour every day at the bar – and, probably, most days of their lives. Only by grit, sacrifice, collaboration, consistency and some luck did they manage to build a successful business. They worked, paid taxes, went to church, donated to the needy, and saved some money for the unpredictable future. Life was good – far better than either expected, given the hardship and turmoil that marked their early years. James and Mary found love, companionship and security in each other, working side by side for their more than 30 years of marriage.

Mary had known James as a child, when the latter had lived in society as a girl. Together, in 1732 they decided that James would trans gender and live as a man so that they could marry and live together as a married couple. Mary knew exactly what she was getting into. Who knows – maybe it was even her idea? So much is said about those who visibly reject gender norms and live as men so little is said and known about the women who love them, live with them, and in many ways enable their gender to be socially legible.

Mary’s name is not mentioned in the popular magazine and newspaper articles that circulated about the couple for more than a century, from 1766 into the 1880s. While the female husbands were deemed so remarkable as to merit a new category to describe them, their wives were offered no such importance. Rather, they were often viewed as ‘normal’ or ‘straight’ women who were victims of circumstance or got swept away and deceived by one particular man. But there is no denying their queerness – especially for someone like Mary who chose to marry a female husband.

And yet sometimes circumstances required female wives to do just that: deny their difference and claim that they didn’t even know that their husbands weren’t male. In 1829, James Allen lay dead on a table at St Thomas Hospital, as the senior medical student, John Martin, undertook an autopsy. Martin declared Allen dead upon arrival, and determined the cause of death as blunt trauma to the head, reporting, “the whole of the bones of the skull were fractured”. Unexpectedly for all involved, Martin had more to report, declaring: “the dead is a woman”.

Though Martin reported his news rather matter-of-factly, the room was filled with those who knew James Allen to be a man: co-workers, boss, neighbours. Even the coroner, Thomas Shelton, had to reckon with the conflict: the marriage certificate declared James a legally married man, whereas Martin had created a medical document that designated them a woman.

Shelton was a lawyer, not a medical man. His work as coroner was about making sure that cause of death was properly designated, and holding appropriate parties accountable in the event of murder, negligence or other wrongful death. In this case, Shelton believed that a marriage certificate carried more weight than a medical report. He declared: “I considered it impossible for him to be a woman, as he had a wife.” While others were flabbergasted at the development, and reporters began using feminine pronouns in reference to Allen, Shelton stood fast in his view of Allen’s manhood.

Gender and danger

For those assigned female at birth, living as a man was never without risk for some, it was filled with hardship and danger. Such was the case for Joseph Lobdell, a hardworking and resourceful person who grew up in Westerlo, New York state, outside Albany. Lobdell had considerable responsibility in their family from a young age, working on the farm, tending the animals and hunting game in the surrounding woods.

As someone who was perceived as a young woman, Lobdell was celebrated for their devotion and many talents, including a knack for hunting, farming, reading, writing and teaching. In Lobdell’s 1855 memoir of these early years, The Female Hunter of Delaware and Sullivan Counties, NY, they complain of the hardship of supporting a family on the wages available to women. They were confident that they could do any work that a man did, and set off to do so – now presenting fully as male.

This decision marked a new course in their life – one that was filled with many new experiences, feelings of visibility and recognition in their manhood, and many feelings of erasure and hurt in the face of hostility. Indeed, across the course of decades, Lobdell would have their gender challenged repeatedly in the court of law, the court of public opinion and, finally, at the behest of their birth family, who had them declared insane and institutionalised on account of their gender in 1879. Their wife of nearly 20 years, Marie Louise Perry, was even misled into believing that Joseph had died Joseph’s brother, James, circulated a false newspaper obituary, and it took Marie nearly a year to discover the truth. Such was the cruelty with which family members and mental-health officials often treated those who transed gender in the late-19th-century United States.

We know about female husbands and their wives only because newspapers in both the UK and the US took great interest in printing stories about them. Female husbands usually became known to local media in times of crisis or duress, often arrest or death. The stories focus on tragedy and hardship. Some of them, especially the accounts about Lobdell, are heartbreaking.

Listen: Angela Steidele explores the life of 19th-century gay pioneer Anne Lister

Charles Hamilton, James Howe, James Allen and Joseph Lobdell are just four people who earned the label ‘female husband’ in the press in the 18th and 19th centuries. Assigned female at birth, they transed gender to live as men and marry women, long before the term ‘transgender’ was coined or the development of treatments and surgeries that enabled people to physically change their sex.

Their partners – long overlooked by writers, readers, and historians alike – were crucial to their happiness and social respectability. In countless ways, these legal marriages to queer wives affirmed and stabilised the gender of female husbands. Together, these couples carved out lives for themselves that were never easy, filled with uncertainty and risk – but, for most of the pairs, they couldn’t imagine an alternative.

Jen Manion is associate professor of history at Amherst College, Massachusetts. Their new book is Female Husbands: A Trans History (Cambridge University Press, March 2020)

This article was taken from issue 21 of BBC World Histories magazine


A Forthcoming Book About Trans Surgeon Dr. James Barry Has Sparked An Online Controversy

Uproar over a recently acquired work of historical fiction has provoked new conversations about the importance of #OwnVoices trans storytelling, or stories about trans people written by trans authors. On Wednesday, Love, In Theory author E.J. Levy announced the sale of The Cape Doctor, a historical novel about Irish surgeon Dr. James Miranda Barry, a trans man, to Little, Brown. Although the book is fiction, The Cape Doctor is about Dr. Barry, who was a very real person who lived and died in the 19th century — and Levy's presumed treatment of his story has left a bad taste in many mouths.

Assigned female at his birth in the late 18th century, James Miranda Steuart Barry lived as a man for more than 50 years, from his late teens or early twenties until the time of his death in 1865. He was a close friend of the South African Governor Lord Charles Somerset, and was rumored to have been his lover. When the time of his death drew near, Barry instructed those close to him to bury him as he died, without undressing him or performing any sort of examination. Those wishes were ignored, and Barry's genitals were exposed by the woman tasked with preparing his body for burial. Regardless of the gender assigned to Barry at birth, Dr. Barry's personal letters never use female pronouns — In fact, he referred to himself as "a gentleman." As historian EE Ottoman points out in his biography of the surgeon, "James Barry wanted to be seen as a man of understanding and I say we give it to him."

The copy in the announcement of Levy's forthcoming novel has led critics to believe that it uses Barry's genitalia, and the violation of his will to reveal them, to drive its narrative. If that is the case, the novel is already inherently problematic in its approach to Barry's life and legacy. As The Girl from Everywhere author Heidi Heilig points out, "the BIG REVEAL OF GENITALS is frequently used as a SHOCKING TWIST in fiction featuring trans folks," and "it is ALSO frequently cited as a reason for TRANS PANIC VIOLENCE AND MURDERS in reality!"

Not only that, but The Cape Doctor also appears to misgender Barry, presenting him as a cisgender woman — hence the word "homosexual" in quotes — who disguised herself as a man in order to pursue a career in medicine. In an email to Bustle, Levy said that her novel "does not 'use female pronouns' to refer to Dr. Barry for the most part in my novel, Barry is referred to variously as he, she, and most often, as I."

In a statement provided to Bustle following the publication of this article, Little, Brown Publisher Reagan Arthur wrote:

Despite evidence that Barry used male pronouns to refer to himself, Levy used "she" in tweets on Wednesday and Thursday, claiming that Barry was "a heroine for our time" who "refused facile gender categories." The author previously shared a link to a New York Times op-ed by Elinor Burkett, who used the space she was given to misgender and deadname Caitlyn Jenner, and to claim that trans women "stake their claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on mine as a woman." Writing on Twitter in 2015, Levy called the piece a "Smart essay on why transgender performance unsettles many feminists."

This is not the first time that Barry has been misgendered in the media. A 2011 novel presents the surgeon as someone whose "greatest achievement of all had been to 'pass' for a man for more than fifty years," and the subtitle for a 2016 biography of the man called him "A Woman Ahead of Her Time." In its profile of the doctor, The History Channel uses female pronouns when discussing Barry's early life. In 2016, The Favorite actress Rachel Weisz was tapped to play Barry in a biopic tentatively titled Secret Life of Dr. James Miranda Barry — a move smacking of the same kind of misguidance that led to Scarlett Johansson's casting as trans man Tex Gill. Johansson quit the starring role after protests from the trans community. The last update for the Barry film is dated Aug. 28, 2017, so it's possible the film has not moved forward in that time.

Casting cisgender women to play trans men, such as in Boys Don't Cry and Albert Nobbs, or cisgender men to play trans women, as in Dallas Buyers Club andThe Danish Girl, merely reinforces the idea that trans men are simply butch women, or that trans women are just men in dresses. In the same way, recasting Barry and Gill as female pioneers erases their already rarely seen identities as trans men.

There's another layer present when talking about this kind of media representation and erasure in the lives of Barry, Gill, and people like them. James Miranda Barry and Dante "Tex" Gill were real men, who breathed, loved, thought, lived, and died. Neither of them was, as Levy described Barry on Thursday, "a dazzling character." As literary agent ZR Ellor wrote in a tweet that same day, "There are so many women in medicine whose stories have never been told. If you want to write about a 19th century female doctor, [you can] take your pick."

The controversy also exposes the culture that allowed The Cape Doctor to land a publishing contract in the first place. In an email to Bustle, YA author Ray Stoeve explained how deep the problem is seated, calling out the agent, editor, and publishing team who presumably saw nothing wrong with publishing a cis author's novel that recasts a trans man as a cis woman in disguise. "The industry has similar issues when it comes to publishing writers of color, disabled writers, and other marginalized groups," Stoeve said. "Agents, editors, and publishers need to think seriously about whose stories they see as relatable, or sellable, and who they see as being qualified to tell certain stories."

These revelations about Levy's novel prompted many trans writers to tweet about their expertise, both in writing about Barry and living as a trans person. In their comment to Bustle, Stoeve says: "Why was a cis person given a contract to write a book about a trans person, in which she entirely revises his identity to suit her own interpretation, when there are plenty of trans writers and historians who could tell this story? Why didn't cis people catch the transphobic dogwhistles in her premise? People within the industry need to self-educate and help change the demographic makeup of publishing so this doesn't keep happening."


In popular culture

Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris has begun work on a film based on Barry's life, entitled Heaven and Earth, Δ] which is set to begin shooting in the UK on December 10, 2008 before moving to Cape Town in January 2009. Set in 1825 in the Cape, the film tells of a secret love affair between Barry (played by Natascha McElhone) and Lord Charles Somerset (James Purefoy). Ε] Barry has previously been played by Anna Massey in an episode of the BBC drama-documentary A Skirt Through History. Ζ]


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