Inspirations: The immaculate deception of James Barry

  • James Barry was a senior army surgeon of the Regency and Victorian eras, and also a woman in disguise.
  • ‘He’ wasn’t identified as Margaret Ann Bulkley, an Irish debtor’s daughter, until 2008.
  • Barry performed the first successful Caesarian section in European medicine.
  • His reforms on the living conditions of soldiers make him a pioneer in what is now called public health.

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Miniature portrait of James Barry as a junior army surgeon, probably painted between 1812 and 1815. Artist unknown (Hercules du Preez [Wikimedia Commons})

James Barry was an awkward bugger. When he lost his final argument with dysentery in 1865, Florence Nightingale described him as ‘the most hardened creature I ever met’. Whether she meant it as an insult or a compliment is not clear.

While not everyone thought fondly of Barry, he left behind many friends and admirers. He had been one of the most senior surgeons in the British army, even holding the post of Inspector General until he lost it by upsetting the governor of St Helena. Whatever mixed feelings he may have inspired in life, a military funeral was his due.

The task of laying out the body was assigned to a charwoman called Sophia Bishop. She probably didn’t relish the task, but she did her duty and stripped the body. Her reaction remains unrecorded, but it’s safe to assume that she blinked a few times. Before her lay the body of an army veteran of over forty years and one of the most distinguished clinicians in history.

Before her lay the body of a woman.

A bad day for Dr McKinnon

Sophia Bishop was not a woman to be easily silenced. She sought out Major DR McKinnon, Barry’s doctor in his final years, and informed him that he was a ‘pretty doctor’ for not even noticing that his patient was a woman. What’s more, she told him, she was the mother of nine children and knew stretch marks when she saw them.

McKinnon’s consternation oozes out of his letter to George Graham of the general registry office. He reports his conversation with Bishop, even though it must have been deeply embarrassing to him and to the British army. He suggested that Barry may have been an ‘imperfectly formed man’, giving rise to speculation that he may have been intergendered that has never been discounted. However, there was no post mortem, so Bishop’s was the only examination of the body. If she said she saw a woman who had been pregnant, there is no evidence to contradict her.

The army reacted swiftly, burying Barry in Kensal Green cemetery and sealing any potentially embarrassing records. Sealing Sofia Bishop’s mouth must have been a harder task, but someone evidently did it because it wasn’t until the 1950s that historian Isobel Rae came across the documents revealing Barry’s gender. By then, James Barry had been honoured with the ‘Barry Room’, one of the reading rooms in the Royal Army Medical College. Generations of trainee surgeons had pored over their texts with no idea that the room honoured a woman.

An Irish story

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Self portrait of James Barry in 1775, uncle of Margaret Ann Bulkley whose name she later adopted. (Stephencdickson [Wikimedia Commons])

The identity of the woman who lived her life as James Barry remained a mystery until a few years ago when Hercules du Preez, a retired South African urologist, set about tracking down his origins. Du Preez followed the trail back to 1789, when one Margaret Ann Bulkley was born to a merchant’s wife in Cork, Ireland. Margaret might have lived an unremarkable life had it not been for the marriage plans of her feckless brother, John. Their father, Jeremiah, put himself in a debtor’s prison to finance John’s plans to marry upward in society, leaving Margaret and her mother destitute.
Margaret’s mother threw herself on the mercy of her only wealthy relative, her brother James Barry who was a moderately successful painter living in London. Barry brought Margaret and her mother to join him and while brother and sister never got on well, he provided for them. He died intestate a couple of years after they arrived, so Margaret’s mother received half his fortune. It did not make the Bulkleys rich, but it did make them self-sufficient.

Of equal importance for the direction Margaret’s life would take, Barry introduced Margaret to his radical friends. His set included the writer and philosopher William Godwin, who continued to promote the ideals of gender equality laid out by his late wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In an age when the highest aspiration of a young woman on the edge of gentility was a few years as a governess and then marriage, Margaret was tutored in Latin by physician Edward Fryer and spent hours reading in the large library of General Francisco Miranda, a Venezuelan revolutionary exiled to London.

A conspiracy of gender and revolution

Margaret must have impressed her new friends because she became the centrepiece of a conspiracy. She was to become the first woman in Britain to qualify to practice medicine. There was a problem: women were not admitted to universities. The solution was simple: Margaret would disguise herself as a man.

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Old College, University of Edinburgh. James Barry would have been familiar with it as a student. (dun_deagh [CC / Flickr])

It is not known whether Margaret conceived the idea itself or one of her radical friends suggested it to her. In either case, we can only guess at her feelings when, on either the 28th or 29th November 1809, she left Margaret Ann Bulkley in her family’s London house and walked out of the door as James Miranda Steuart Barry. The young man boarded a ship for Edinburgh with his ‘aunt’ in attendance, where he took up a place at Edinburgh University’s medical school.

The name was obviously chosen to honour Margaret’s benefactors, including her late uncle James Barry, General Miranda and Lord Steuart Buchan, another member of Godwin’s set who was involved in the James Barry conspiracy. The location, Edinburgh, was presumably chosen as a place where neither the Barrys nor the Bulkleys were known.

What the James Barry conspirators planned once Barry had graduated is not known, but Margaret probably didn’t intend to leave her childhood identity behind forever. By the time James Barry boarded her ship, Miranda was establishing Venezuela as an independent republic, free from the Spanish empire. The plan was probably to reveal the deception once Margaret qualified as Barry, demonstrating that a woman was perfectly capable of qualifying as a doctor if she were allowed to train. She would be barred from practicing in Britain, but Dr Bulkley would be welcomed in Miranda’s egalitarian Venezuela.

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‘Miranda en La Carraca’, depicting Francisco Miranda’s final years in prison in Venezuela, before his death in 1816. Painted by Arturo Michelena in 1896. (The Photographer [Wikimeida Commons])

Plans based on revolution are rarely dependable and Miranda was defeated and imprisoned in 1812, shortly before James Barry’s graduation and entry into the Royal College of Surgeons. Margaret Bulkley was faced with a choice which her London supporters presumably left to her. She could reveal her true identity and throw away three years of study for the constrained life of a scandalous woman, or she could abandon Margaret Ann Bulkley forever and live out her life as James Barry.

Petticoats or redcoats?

She chose the latter, and with it, the task of building a career. In 19th century Britain, a surgeon was simultaneously a gentleman and a tradesman. He was accepted into the society of the upper class, but made his living by being paid for services that no gentleman would name a price for. Starting a practice with no connections and no experience was no easy task, even though Barry’s academic credentials were impressive.

One place where there was no shortage of places for untried young surgeons was the army. In 1812, the British army was stretched across the largest empire the world has ever seen, was engaged in a long and bloody campaign against Napoleon’s armies in Spain and had just begun a war in North America against the fledgling United States. The army needed surgeons, and soldiers couldn’t complain if they were a novice’s first patient.

How Barry finessed the army’s medical examination, which would have entailed being stripped naked, is not recorded. He – and from this point on, he lived as a ‘he’ – probably brought letters of certification from Fryer or one of his sympathisers and avoided it altogether. However he did it, he was accepted into the army and spent several years serving in Britain before being posted to Cape Town in 1815.

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Cape Town today (Damien du Toit [CC / Flickr])

Call of the Cape

Barry spent 14 years in Cape Town, the longest posting in a career that took him around the world. He established what was to become the pattern of his life: he was a superb surgeon, he advocated for what would now be called public health, he made many close friends and he quarrelled constantly with his superiors.

Cape Town was then the capital of the Cape Colony, which roughly corresponds to the western half of modern day South Africa. Barry established himself as a doctor with a much better bedside manner than most of his contemporaries, showing kindness and respect to soldiers who received very little of either. He recommended improvements in sanitation and made the recently invented smallpox vaccine to Cape Town some 20 years before it was widely used in Britain.

Barry developed an interest in gynaecology and obstetrics, which was unusual at a time when the men of the medical profession were inclined to literally avert their eyes from the arcana of the female anatomy. Women were often asked to point out their symptoms on charts to spare them the indignity of being examined.

It was that interest that led to Barry’s crowning achievement as a surgeon, when he performed a Caesarian section on merchant’s wife called Mrs Munnik. At a time when childbirth was so dangerous that the word ‘delivery’ meant not the delivery of the child into the world but the delivery of the mother from the dangers of childbirth, the aim of the Caeasrian was considered to be to salvage the child from a dead or nearly dead mother. James Barry changed that by saving the lives of both Mrs Munnik and the child that was christened James Barry Munnik in his honour. It took some time for word of Barry’s achievement to spread, but Caesarian sections ceasedto be inevitably fatal for the mother.

James Barry Munnik plays a further role in the James Barry story, as his family was presented with a miniature portrait of Barry painted between his graduation and his arrival in Cape Town. It shows us the fair haired, fair skinned young ‘man’ he must have been.

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19th century duelling pistols, probably similar to the ones used in the duel between Barry and Cloete. (Tilemahos Efthimiadis [CC / Flickr])

Ladies, gentlemen and duellists

On a personal level, Barry was well liked by officers’ wives and soldiers alike, although the former occasionally got him into trouble. His apparent intimacy with the wife of a Captain Cloete led to a pistol duel in which Barry was wounded in the thigh. His stoicism must have drawn the admiration of the colony when he refused medical aid but insisted on dressing his own wound. He was back in Cape society within a few days, and became firm friends with Cloete.

Another part of Barry’s pattern lay in his inability to get on with the surgeon-general of the colony, though his enmity and perhaps his interest in obstetrics endeared him to the colony’s governor, Lord Charles Somerset, who blamed the surgeon-general for his wife’s death in childbirth. Barry and Somerset were so close that an ‘improper relationship’ was suggested. It would probably be a mistake to read too much into that as empty gossip must have flown constantly round remote colonial outposts such as Cape Town was at the time.

Surgeon to the empire

Barry left Cape Town in 1828 and was posted to Jamaica a year later, where he continued to advocate that the best way to keep soldiers healthy was to improve their living conditions. It was in Jamaica that he met his manservant, John, who would attend him for the rest of his life.

A few months after he arrived, Barry visited London without having applied for leave. He was summoned to the offices of his superior, James McGrigor, for an ‘interview without tea’, more colloquially known as a bollocking. McGrigor asked what he was playing at and Barry, rising to authority as always, said he couldn’t get a decent haircut in Jamaica. McGrigor took it no further.

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James Barry in 1850, with his manservant, John, and his dog, Psyche (Rotational~commonswiki [Wikimedia Commons])

As Barry was posted from one outpost to another, John must have contributed to a rather eccentric looking entourage. Barry would only eat goat’s cheese, so he took a goat with him wherever he went. He also had a succession of dogs through his life, all called Psyche. In Greek mythology, the nymph Psyche wandered the earth looking for her lost love and became a servant of the goddess of love. Perhaps Barry saw some reflection of his own situation, wandering the world and unable to fall in love, in Psyche’s story. Or perhaps he just liked the sound of it.

Most of his career took place in the relative peace of the post-Napoleonic world. There were constant colonial conflicts but no major wars until 1853, when Britain, France and the Ottoman empire invaded the Crimean peninsula on Russia’s Black Sea coast. By then, Barry was one of the most senior surgeons in the army with a rank equivalent to Brigadier-General. He was posted to Corfu to set up a hospital to receive wounded troops evacuated from the Crimea itself. Middle age had not mellowed Barry, whose gifts as a surgeon gave his hospital a mortality rate of below 5%, which was extraordinarily low at the time.

Nor had he lost his talent for annoying the wrong people.

James Barry and Florence Nightingale

 

When Barry visited the Crimea itself, he naturally took an interest in the infamous field hospital at Scutari where Florence Nightingale was bringing order to a particularly hideous form of chaos. Barry and Nightingale had much in common. They both advocated for improvements in the living conditions of soldiers, they were between them laying
the foundations for the medical discipline of public health and, although only one of them knew it, they were among the most important women in medical history.

They hated each other on sight.

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‘One of the wards in the hospital at Scutari’ by William Simpson in 1856, depicting Florence Nightingale in charge of the British army’s main hospital of the Crimean War. (Adam Cuerden [Wikimedia Commons])

Nightingale’s biggest contribution was the application of mathematics to medical practice, developing statistical techniques that are still used in modern epidemiology. She applied those techniques to her organisation of the Scutari hospital, and to the living conditions of soldiers more generally. While she is known to posterity as ‘the lady with the lamp’, perhaps because nursing better suits popular perceptions of Victorian womanhood than mathematics and organisation, the War Office at the time  recognised her ability and accorded her considerable influence.

In his brief biography of Barry, Robert Leitch suggests that getting on the wrong side of Nightingale’s influence hindered Barry’s career and led to his reforms receiving less recognition than it deserved. It’s impossible to say, and Nightingale was only one of many influential people who rolled their eyes at the mention of Barry’s name. It’s also possible that Barry recognised that his talents better suited him to the field than to politics, so he spent his career applying reforms and practicing medicine around the world rather than building career and influence at the seat of power in London.

A legacy of questions

Whatever the reason, the end of the Crimean War saw Barry posted to Canada in 1857. He continued to apply his reforms on behalf of soldiers and presumably annoyed yet more influential people while he was at it. Advancing age caught up with him before long, and he retired to London until he fell afoul of the 1865 dysentery epidemic.

L0012356 A hospital at Scutari Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A hospital at Scutari, a surgeon setting an arm in a splint, F. Nightingale, a nurse. 'The work of Miss Florence Nightingale. The nurses at work in the hospital at Scutari'. Engraving Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 2.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Engraving of Florence Nightingale overseeing a surgeon setting a broken arm at Scutari Hospital (Wellcome Images [CC / Flickr])

While Du Preez’s 2008 paper answers many questions about Barry’s early life, many more remain. Was there no one who knew what lay under Barry’s uniform, or were there trusted friends who knew the secret? His long association with John, his Jamaican manservant, suggests that John at least might have known and been trusted. From the perspective of a century and a half after Barry’s death, it’s impossible to tell.

Above all, what to make of those stretch marks? Could a woman living as a man hide a pregnancy? Was the child carried to term, and if so, what became of it? Was that the real reason for Barry’s return to London from Jamaica in search of a decent haircut? If there was anything in it at all, who was the father? We will probably never know.

The great legacy of a great deception

James Barry was the first woman licenced to practice medicine in Britain. The second didn’t follow until 1865, the year of Barry’s death, when Elizabeth Garret Anderson fought her way through the system

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Gravestone of Margaret Ann Bulkley, aka James Barry, in Kensal Green Cemetery, London (Budby [CC / Flickr])

If you have ever been admitted into a hospital and noticed the without disguising her identity. Yet Barry’s legacy lies not in the truth of his gender, which wasn’t known until women had been admitted to medical school for decades. It lies in his medical achievements, both in developing obstetric techniques like Caesarian sections, and in reforms that made soldiers, as well as prisoners and lepers, less dependent on a medical profession that was less than dependable at the time.cleanliness around you, and left without having contracted a new infection, you owe a debt of gratitude of James Barry, aka Margaret Ann Bulkley.

What we cannot know is when and why she decided she would never be Margaret Ann Bulkley again but would live the rest of her life as James Barry. What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification
11 comments on “Inspirations: The immaculate deception of James Barry
  1. cathellisen says:

    Great stuff, there was some brief mention of James Barry and who she was in Wine, Women and Good Hope, (book about early Cape Town – fun stuff, recommend it) which I read recently, but the book really is an overview, so she only got a few paragraphs. It was wonderful to read a bit more. Thanks for sharing.

    • DJ Cockburn says:

      Thanks, I’ll look for that book. I’ve been wanting to work Barry into a story since I heard about him, but never come up with the right idea. That book might help.

  2. Syntinen says:

    The answer to the question “how Barry finessed the army’s medical examination” is simple: there was no medical examination for officers. Officers were, by definition, gentlemen, and no gentleman would have submitted to such an undignified procedure. Also, officers’ physiques were considered a great deal less important than their qualities of leadership. The great soldier Charles James Napier, a close contemporary of Barry’s, was almost blind without his spectacles.

  3. Klaus says:

    Like Catalina de Erauso, James Barry was probably transgender who fully intended to live his life out as a man in a time where “sex changes” weren’t studied and hormones weren’t administered or understood. To say Barry was the “first female surgeon” would be incorrect – Barry chose to live and present himself as a man and should be honored as such. At the very least he should instead be regarded as the “first notable transgender surgeon” of Britain.

    In fact his story mirrors a lot of Catalina’s, especially his rough personality and lashing out when people pointed out his femininity, and had Barry lived to old age he might have retired somewhere and used natural hormones to transition medically like Catalina did. I don’t think it would be fair to disregard how he presented himself and the lengths he went to hide his birth sex by referring to him as a woman. James Barry, regardless of whether he had a penis or not, was a man, and a damn fine one at that.

    • DJ Cockburn says:

      That’s an interesting perspective. Do you have any evidence that Barry was transgender in the sense we’d understand it now, rather than a woman who chose to opt-out of the expectations imposed on her gender?

      • Klaus says:

        I have a lot of thoughts on this so I hope my text wall about it doesn’t bury you!

        First off, there’s a woman named Deborah Samson who I consider would be a great example of a cross-dresser. Deborah enlisted to fight in the war and was afraid her gender would be revealed because she would be discharged and unable to help the war efforts. When she was revealed she re-assumed her identity as a woman, had children and openly spoke on tours about how she was a cross-dressing woman who served in the military. She was a woman who hid her identity and regardless of being discharged would have returned to living openly as a woman. Joan of Arc also began her military career cross-dressing as a man, but later she openly would wear woman’s high fashion dresses over her armour (and was the reason she was captured). She only returned to wearing male clothing in prison after she was raped, but would have continued living as a woman otherwise because like Deborah she was a woman who identified as a woman.

        In comparison Catalina revealed himself to be born female and an ex-nun only to evade punishment, then pushed it further to get an exemption from the Pope so he could be considered as man to continue living as a man in every sense (clothing, receiving his pension, recognized for his military services, etc). He spent his later years as a rancher in Mexico using traditional medicines as testosterone treatments and grew facial hair. When given the chance to out himself as a cross-dresser he denied that chance to return to living as a woman because he wasn’t a woman. He was a man and wanted to continue living as a man at any cost.

        That’s the sort of logic I’m applying to James Barry here. A woman who cross-dresses is doing it to hide her identity to achieve something they couldn’t normally while a transman is doing it to confirm his identity. The cross-dresser isn’t afraid to be known or treated as a woman when their work is done or they’re revealed because that’s what they are. A transman is afraid for their birth sex to be known because it undermines their identity and claim to masculinity, if that makes sense.(This would also apply to transwomen in history who would have even fewer reasons to hide their male identity for obvious reasons)

        James Barry, according to all accounts, was afraid of being revealed to have a female body and did everything he could to confirm his identity as a man. He was violent and incredibly brash, starting fights and even pistol duels with anyone who insulted his feminine voice or face to defend his masculinity. He had very few, if any, close friends that he could come out to. When he was working with Nightingale he absolutely hated her whereas a cross-dressing woman might have seen her as an ally (a woman openly working in healthcare like them!) and outed themselves privately. He couldn’t get along with any of the other doctors, but was amazing at bedside manner and his techniques for helping women in a time where doctors believed women were too stupid to understand their own bodies and pregnancy – he might have actually taken on that specialization simply because he understood first hand how poor care for women were. If he had a baby like the rumours said, as a cross-dresser there’d probably at the least be evidence of money being sent to support them, or Barry could have brought them back to Jamaica as a “relative’s child”. As a doctor though, and one specializing in woman’s health/pregnancy, he could have easily just given himself an abortion when he realized he was pregnant instead, which is far more likely than hiding a pregnancy for 9+ months, the after effects and a child.

        The biggest and most damning evidence is the refusal to have their body properly cared for after death since that would have revealed his birth sex. If he was a cross-dresser why would he care about exposing himself as the woman he was after death? Why wouldn’t he use that as proof that women were just as capable as men when it came to becoming a doctor if he was simply cross-dressing to become a doctor/prove women could be doctors? By dying as a man they would have been forced to remember him as a man, not a woman, which worked despite the discovery. In the letters after his death where he was revealed to have a female body even his closest friends noted they never saw him as anything other than a man (albeit an “imperfect” one).

        This isn’t even getting into the psychological effects of being forced to live as the ‘wrong’ gender – Dorthy Lawrence had a break down after 10 days of attempting to pass as a man in the military, and the author of the book Self-Made Man committed themselves to a mental institute after they tried to live as a man (part time) for a year. Cross-dressing long term isn’t something a person can do without being affected, sometimes seriously. In a transgender man’s case it’s that they can’t continue “cross-dressing” as a woman when they identify as a man.

        Even today people don’t fully understand the differences between “a man in a dress” and a “transgender woman” even when we do have hormones, surgeries and the research behind the condition. It wouldn’t be hard to look back in history at famous “cross-dressers” and realize several of them had actually openly expressed desires to be changed into that gender like Emperor Elagabus, who offered large sums of money to any doctor who could perform a sex change on her… which sounds suspiciously something a transgender woman would want and the opposite of what a cross-dresser would.

        Sorry for the long comment but that’s how I feel about James Barry and transgender people in history, mostly because I am a transgender man myself and recognize a lot of the behaviors across several other notable transgender men like Catalina that get ignored. There’s also lots of evidence that intersex or transgender people were recognized or celebrated in several cultures before Christianity so we know that these are part of the human condition and not a recent deviation, much like more evidence of openly gay and lesbian people existed in history. James Barry was right to hide his gender since we celebrate his accomplishments under a name and gender he used for less than a 1/4th of his life before he even became a doctor. We don’t remember him for being an amazing surgeon, we reduce what he’s done down to him having a vagina.

        So yeah! Use this as you will. That’s my argument for what the difference between a transgender person and a cross-dresser is in historical contexts regarding James Barry. I just can’t see him as anything other than a transman attempting to live as a man versus a woman attempting to do something she couldn’t without cross-dressing.

        • DJ Cockburn says:

          Please don’t apologise for the long reply. I write this stuff because I find it interesting, so I’m always happy to see other peoples’ views.

          Of course we’ll never know the real truth behind Margaret Ann Bulkley’s decision to become James Barry. I don’t see that it matters much one way or the other because as you say, his legacy lies more in his skills than his gender.

          Being something of a contrarian, I feel the need to point out that the case you make for Barry being transgender contains a couple of counterpoints to your argument. You mention the psychological effects of being forced to live as the wrong gender, which would explain Barry’s famous bad temper on its own even if he wasn’t transgender. If he was simply a woman disguised as a man, he must have lived in constant fear of being revealed and humiliated.

          For me, the strongest argument in favour of Barry being a disguised woman rather than transgendered is simply that if Bulkley wanted to live as a man, there were easier and less risky ways of doing it than by training as a surgeon and then joining the army. James Barry was a professional identity, and may well have regarded the gender identity as being necessary but incidental to that.

          Related to that, I’ve run across quite a few stories of women disguising themselves as men to take on masculine roles in the 18th and 19th centuries. You mentioned a couple of them and presumably there were quite a few more who were never uncovered.

          Sticking to British history, which is what I know best, I’m not aware of any in the 20th century. I don’t know of every single case but I’d have thought that if women disguised themselves to fight in the Napoleonic Wars or to become pirates like Anne Bonny and Mary Read, there would be at least some cases in the First World War. The lack of them suggests that women were more likely to take the other opportunities open to them than to disguise themselves. By 1916, British women could be doctors, nurses or munitions workers, which doesn’t add up to a world of opportunity but it’s three more than when Bulkley became Barry.

          My point (I promise there was one!) is that the roles available to women in early 19th century Britain were so constrained that it’s hardly surprising it drove women to disguise themselves as men.

          A lot depends on how the scheme to turn Bulkley into Barry came about. The most common explanation is that Godwin and his set found they had a highly intelligent and well-read girl among them, who was about to become a woman in a society that would not value her abilities. I guess it’s possible that young Margaret said she felt more like a man, and the Barry conspiracy started there.

          I think your most important point was that Barry’s medical legacy was far more important than his gender identity, though I don’t think it’s altogether true that he isn’t remembered for it. The army continued to revere Barry after his sex became public knowledge, and I gather the army’s medical college still has a ‘Barry Room’. I haven’t been able to work out how much of what is now known about obstetrics and public health, the areas he was most influential in, can be traced back to him but then that’s often the way with medical science: changes in practice emerge out of the work of a number of people. That was even more true in Barry’s day, before the advent of the evidence-based medicine that owes so much to Florence Nightingale.

          I do appreciate your view on this, even if I don’t find it entirely conclusive. I’ve been trying to come up with a Barry-based story for some time, and this might drive me a bit closer to it!

          • Klaus says:

            No problem! I know it’s one of those things that can be difficult to wrap your head around, even for transgender people trying to confirm their identity it’s a strange thing.

            As a counterpoint I wanted to mention is that if it was simply crossdressing, if the longterm wasn’t so psychologically devastating transgender people wouldn’t be committing suicide at the rates they do, or really transition. Over half of current transgender people have attempted suicide whereas only 4% of the overall population does. Transgender children under the age of 10 also commit suicide at shockingly high rates despite their age. There is also the case of David Reimer who was forced to have a sex change surgery when he was an infant after a botched circumcision. He was raised as a girl and given hormones without his knowledge, then came out in his 20’s to disprove the study. He had transitioned to living as a male under the age of 10 despite being on female hormones and having the appearance of a female. He later killed himself because he could not live in his body knowing that he could not be his true gender, that the doctor had taken away his maleness. If crossdressing was so easy to do then transgender men, who are born female but identify male, would have no problem pretending to be women.

            What you see as rage and lashing out about their hidden identity I see as someone who’s entire life will be ended if they discover they are female bodied. It’s like the men who are the loudest opponents of homosexuality, at a high rate, end up being closeted homosexuals themselves using masculinity to hide their orientation. If they can be the loudest, the toughest, and meanest nobody is going to call them a sissy or fag. For a transgender man the evidence is clear on their naked body unlike catching someone in a sexual act, so they would be far more willing to escalate to insane levels of violence to defend themselves. In a way, if their real identity got out it would “kill” them – their identity would no longer be allowed to exist. The lengths transgender people also go to confirm their identity and hide their bodies is staggering. For instance there’s a common condition where binding the chest causes so much stress that the cartilage between the ribs becomes inflamed, causing massive amounts of pain. There are even up to 10% of current transgender men who have broken a rib from binding and that’s in a time where we have “safer” options created by actual medical personnel. The constant fear of having someone brush up against you just close enough to be able to tell you have breasts, that you don’t have a penis, that your facial hair is just a little too little or fake. Transmen would rather break ribs and destroy their body than ever be considered female.

            Also, I’m not sure if people would be able to disguise themselves in WW1 as easily as before. This was in a completely different era where men had to be naked around each other long before they hit the battlefield, including doctor inspections to join the military. Before that time period, especially in militias, as long as you showed up with a gun and fought on their side they didn’t look that closely. I do agree that there is far more women than previously counted that crossdressed before those times though – In the American Civil War it’s estimated that over 400 served under the names of brothers or family members before returning home to continue living as women. There definitely were a large portion of women in history who were forced into crossdressing roles to achieve their goals, and I personally think out of respect for them and their identities we should differentiate between them and the transgender folks. There’s also a lot tied up in whether those women were lesbians who had to dress as men to be in public with a loved one or marry. There’s a lot more to it then just clothes!

            Lastly if you are going for a Barry-based story I would highly implore you to attempt cross dressing in public at least 1-3 times. Shave and do makeup, buy a wig and full outfit, get all dressed up and try to walk through a safer part of your city. You’d be surprised the type of feelings, including fear and rage, that comes from it. How acutely aware of the stares, second glances and people walking too close to you become. And how much anxiety and dread comes from it. How difficult it is to pass as a person of the opposite gender when you have clear markers or features that betray you (much like Barry was high-pitched, had a beautiful face and wasn’t quite as tall as other men). Do it a few times to understand how difficult (and time consuming) the whole process of is just to live day to day life as barely passing, then try to explore the logistics of doing it full time around others like how you would bathe, sleep, the upkeep on grooming or things you would have to practice. Though I want to make it really clear – if at any point you feel like you are in harms way you listen to your gut and you get somewhere safe ASAP. There is legitimate threats of violence and if your gut feeling picks up on that you NEED to listen to it. DO NOT IGNORE IT.

            Whatever you choose to do with your story, I hope this will help you make more informed decisions about how to write about it. My email is included in details section that you can probably see if you’d ever want to ask for some sources on transgender passing and techniques, health problems, whatever! I can’t promise you undivided attention but I can promise that I’m willing to share every resource I have if it gives you a better idea of what being transgender is like. Thanks for such a great discussion mate, good luck with your story!

          • Klaus says:

            Oh and also check out the section here called “transgendered?” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk%3AJames_Barry_(surgeon)

            I’ll look for the sources and share them when I get a chance but there’s a lot more evidence that’s just waiting to be sorted through with a new lenses nowadays.

            • DJ Cockburn says:

              It’s certainly been an interesting discussion, and I appreciate your taking the time to engage in it. We’re obviously not going to resolve the question of how Barry identified, but hopefully having your perspective as a counterpoint to mine will make this page more interesting for anyone else who comes across it.
              A few further thoughts that don’t relate specifically to Barry:

              >>>Also, I’m not sure if people would be able to disguise themselves in WW1 as easily as before. This was in a completely different era where men had to be naked around each other long before they hit the battlefield, including doctor inspections to join the military.

              Without knowing exactly what the procedures were, I’d imagine that’s true of the regular armies but that was only one way to get involved. There were medics, drivers, logisticians, mechanics, merchant sailors, etc. It must have been possible for a sufficiently determined woman to get in somewhere.

              >>>There definitely were a large portion of women in history who were forced into crossdressing roles to achieve their goals, and I personally think out of respect for them and their identities we should differentiate between them and the transgender folks.

              I agree in principle, but one thing I think we’ve established is that there’s no way to definitively tell one from the other based on their historical record.

              >>>Lastly if you are going for a Barry-based story I would highly implore you to attempt cross dressing in public at least 1-3 times.

              That’s an interesting suggestion. My first thought was that I couldn’t possibly do that. My second was that my first thought proved you right. I’m honestly not sure whether I’ll try it or not, though the biggest problem with a James Barry story is that I still don’t have a story. I have a few others higher on the list, but I may well take you up on your offer of further discussion if inspiration strikes.

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