I first learned of the intriguing Dr. "James" Barry when I was in medical school and beginning to collect books relating to medical history. In a bookshop on Cape Cod, I asked the proprietor if he had any rare or interesting medical books. After some pondering, he showed me to a glass-fronted case of his "rarest" books and removed a volume published in 1881, written by a Colonel Ebenezar Rogers. A Modern Sphinx was the first published book, albeit fictionalized, about Margaret Ann Bulkley(or perhaps, Miranda Stuart Barry), known for most of her life as Dr. James Barry. Fascinated by the tale, I spent far more than I had planned for that particular book hunting trip. In hindsight, I am quite pleased that I purchased the book as it has only increased in value and is not often found. Thus began my fascination with--most likely--the first female British surgeon.
I recently finished another account of the mysterious doctor: The Strange Story of Dr. James Barry: Army Surgeon, Inspector General of Hospitals, Discovered on death to be a woman(London:Longman's, 1958).
This non-fiction account, written by Isobel Rae, is the first attempt at capturing the fascinating life of Barry without the shading of romance or speculation. Rae attempted, rather successfully, to fill in many factual gaps that had remained unknown in earlier articles and books. The Misses Racster and Grove had written a far less enlightening book in 1932 entitled: Dr. James Barry: Her Secret Story. Rae, on the other hand, was the first biographer allowed unlimited access to "The Barry Papers" at the British War Office.
Barry remained vague about many details of her early life. Born late in the eighteenth-century, it is believed that she graduated from the Edinburgh School of Medicine in 1812. Though apparently a brilliant student, it would seem that Barry was aided in her deception by high-powered connections. It has also been suggested that James Barry was intersex, rather than exclusively female. What is known for certain, however, is that Barry completed forty years as an army surgeon for Great Britain, eventually promoted to an Inspector General of Hospitals in South Africa and what are now the British Virgin Islands. A fastidious dresser, strict vegetarian and obsessive adherent to protocol, Barry remained an enigmatic and puzzling persona to most who met her. Upon her death in 1865, it was discovered by the charwoman who was instructed to prepare the body for burial that the doctor was a she rather than a he. The story made headlines around the world, with many of Barry's former associates claiming that they suspected all along. Regardless, Dr. Barry, according to her evaluations by the British Army, was a skilled and effective physician. In addition to fulfilling her obligations to military hospitals, Barry served Colonial civilian communities in her various posts as well, many of which were abandoned by the doctors of the East India Company. Her obsession with proper diet frequently set her at odds with superiors who were far more concerned with cost savings than what was contained in troop rations.
Barry was certainly not the first woman to disguise her gender in order to study and attain a position in the medical field, but her length of success was unprecedented.
Dr. Barry and her dog, Psyche. Taken in Jamaica in 1862.