The Mysterious Life of Dr. James Barry, Britain's Toughest 'Military Man'

Barry was the second highest-ranked medical officer in the British Army and fought a mean duel.
Marcia Wendorf
Wikimedia Commons

Dr. James Barry was a military hero who rose as far as Inspector General in Charge of Military Hospitals – the second highest-ranked medical office in the British Army. A somewhat hot-headed doctor, Barry was also known for a pistol duel and a famed argument with Florence Nightengale. However, one of Barry's biggest legacies might be a very well-kept secret – one that was only discovered upon death. 

Success, surgery, and sanitation

Born in Cork, Ireland in 1789, Barry received a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh Medical School before joining the British Army in 1813. After posts in the UK at Chelsea and at the Royal Military Hospital in Plymouth, he was promoted to Assistant Surgeon to the Forces, which was equivalent in rank to Lieutenant.

In 1816, Barry was posted to Cape Town, South Africa, taking along a letter of introduction to the Governor of that territory, Lieutenant General Lord Charles Henry Somerset. Almost immediately after Barry's arrival, Somerset's young daughter fell ill, and Barry successfully treated her.

Dr. James Barry
Dr. James Barry Source: Wikimedia Commons

After that, Barry was made Lord Somerset's personal physician, and Somerset appointed Barry to the post of Colonial Medical Inspector, a considerable jump in rank. Over the next ten years, Barry brought improvements to the Cape colony's sanitation and water systems, and improved the living conditions of slaves, prisoners, the mentally ill, and lepers.

When it proved impossible for a local woman to give birth, Barry performed one of the first successful Caesarean section operations, and both the mother and child survived. That child, James Barry Munnik, was named after the doctor who saved him, and he went on to pass that name down to generations of his family. The name eventually passed to James Barry Munnik Hertzog, who became South Africa's Prime Minister.

Barry made many enemies while in South Africa by criticizing local officials for their handling of medical issues. In 1828, after being promoted yet again, this time to the rank of Surgeon of the Forces, he was posted, first to Mauritius, an isolated island off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, then to Jamaica in the Caribbean, and in 1836, to the island of Saint Helena in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. So remote is Saint Helena that it was chosen as the place where Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled for the second time and later died.

In 1840, Barry was posted to the Leeward and Windward Islands of the West Indies and received another promotion, this time to Principal Medical Officer. After surviving a bout of yellow fever, in 1846 he was posted to Malta, an island in the Mediterranean Sea, and successfully battled an outbreak of cholera in 1850.

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After a posting in 1851 to Corfu, another island in the Mediterranean, Barry was promoted to the rank of Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals, which is equivalent to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In 1857, he was posted to Canada and was promoted yet again, this time to the rank of Inspector General of Hospitals, which is equivalent to the rank of Brigadier General.

Always argumentative, Barry at one point entered into a pistol duel with a certain Captain Josias Cloete of the 21st Light Dragoons, and Barry's aim was such that the bullet removed just the peak of Cloete's military cap, leaving both duelists unscathed.

During the Crimean War, which lasted from 1854 to 1856, Barry even managed to get into an argument with the famed nurse Florence Nightingale who described him as, "the most hardened creature I ever met."

In Canada, Barry insisted that better food, sanitation, and medical care be given not only to the British soldiers and their families posted there but to prisoners and lepers as well. He crusaded for better care for the poor and the underprivileged and was even arrested and demoted in rank on several occasions.

Several oddities

There were several aspects of Barry's life outsiders questioned with curiosity. There was his distinctive high-pitched voice, youthful appearance, and lack of facial hair that made medical school colleagues believe he was a child that had lied about his age. 

There was also never a Mrs. Barry. In fact, when he was serving for a decade in Cape Town he befriended the governor, Lord Charles Somerset. Barry moved into a private apartment at Somerset's residence, sparking rumors about their relationship. Barry's only other close companion was a devoted servant named John Danson who had been with Barry since the posting in South Africa. Oh, and of course, his pet poodle named Psyche.

Barry, Danson, and Psyche
Barry, Danson, and Psyche Source: Wikimedia Commons

Further, Barry's burial instructions noted that "in the event of his death, strict precautions should be adopted to prevent any examination of his person" and the body should be "buried in [the] bed sheets without further inspection".

After having been forced to retire from the British Army post due to old age and ill health, Barry traveled to London and died there on July 25, 1865, of dysentery. Somehow, Barry's burial instructions weren't followed, and instead, a charwoman was brought in to clean and lay out the body for burial.

An astounding secret

It was then that the secret was revealed, as the charwoman clearly saw, and as a postmortem examination confirmed, Dr. James Barry was actually a woman. She was, in fact, an Irish woman named Margaret Ann Bulkley. Even more incredibly, it is likely that at some point in her youth, Bulkley gave birth to a child.

Margaret Bulkley's mother was the sister of the famous Irish artist and professor of painting at London's Royal Academy, James Barry. During Margaret Bulkley's teenage years, a new child suddenly appeared in her household, and although raised as her sister, it's likely that the child was Margaret's daughter, likely conceived when she was raped by an uncle as a teenager. Indeed, the charwoman who prepared Dr. Barry's body discovered pregnancy stretch marks on the abdomen.

When asked by Dr. Barry's physician, Major D. R. McKinnon, how she knew they were pregnancy stretch marks, the charwoman pointed to her own abdomen and said, "From marks here. I am a maried [sic] woman and the mother of nine children and I ought to know."

Always a good student, Margaret Bulkley had hoped to become a tutor but lacked the opportunities because, at that time, women rarely taught. Women were barred from most formal education as well as most professions – and they certainly weren't allowed to practice medicine. 

After the death of her uncle, the real James Barry, Bulkley, along with the help of several of her uncle's influential friends, assumed the name "James Barry," a name she would keep for the next 56 years, and entered medical school in 1809.

Barry qualified as a doctor in 1812 and moved to London for further training. She passed the examination given by the Royal College of Surgeons of England before beginning her career in the British Army.

The aftermath

After the charwoman who had made the shocking discovery failed in her attempt to extort money from Barry's doctor to keep the secret, she took her story to the newspapers and the matter became public. The British army's response was to seal all records relating to Dr. James Barry for the next 100 years.

It wasn't until the 1950s that historian Isobel Rae gained access to the records and wrote about Barry in her work, The Strange Story of Dr. James Barry. Of course, some researchers question whether Barry was a woman dressing as a man to pursue her dreams, or whether it was more than that - and if today Barry would identify with the LGBTQ+ community. But of course, there's so much we'll never know. 

Following her death, Barry's loyal friend John Danson disappeared and James Barry was buried in London's Kensal Green Cemetery. Her headstone includes the rank she proudly attained:  "Dr. James Barry Inspector General of Hospitals." As a teenager, Margaret Ann Bulkley had written to her brother who had recently joined the military, "Was I not a girl I would be a Soldier!" And what a soldier she was.

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