James Barry’s Final Joke


(nan [CC / Flickr])

“Mrs. Sofia Bishop.”

Hawkins’s tone informed Major McKinnon that it was beneath the dignity of an army surgeon to admit a charwoman to his London rooms, and beneath the dignity of his batman to do the admitting. McKinnon said nothing, but the woman who walked past him gave him a withering look from under her bonnet. McKinnon wouldn’t have trusted the laying out of one of the most renowned surgeons in Queen Victoria’s army to a woman who was easily cowed.

“You did well, Sofia,” said McKinnon. He was excellently laid out and the funeral was a most dignified affair. Why do you wish to see me?”

“Thank you kindly, sir, but I had to see you. I fought with my conscience all night, I did, and I can hold my peace no longer.”

Heaven save me from an Irish conscience, thought McKinnon. “I hope you did not find the duty improper. I was told you had laid out a man before?”

“That I have, sir, and many a woman too. Enough of both to know the difference.”

“Whatever do you mean? I’ve attended Dr Barry for the last five years and observed nothing amiss. Apart from the dysentery that killed him, of course. I’m sure I would have noticed had there been anything. I am a doctor.”

“And a pretty doctor you are too if you didn’t notice it was a woman you were attending these five years.”

“Sofia, what on earth are you talking about?”

“Didn’t you ever see him in his pelt?”

“In his…” An army surgeon could not help but gain some knowledge of the vulgar tongue, but there was always something new to learn. “Oh, you mean…bare?”

“I know what I mean and I know what I saw.”

“Quite. Naturally, I did not. I would not intrude on the dignity of a gentleman.”

“Well, I’m here to tell you that your Dr Barry was a woman.” She folded her arms in a manner that brooked no contradiction.

“My dear Sofia, please sit down. You’re overwrought. Have some tea.”

Sofia did not move. “Don’t mistake me, sir. I’m no delicate lady who gets a headache for elevenses and another after tea. It’s the likes of me who has to tell those young ladies what happens between their legs when doctors are too worried about dignity, so you can believe me when I say I know the difference between a – ”

“Sofia.” McKinnon cut her off. “There is no need to discuss…pudenda.”

“Well if you don’t want to hear about puddings, I’ll just say she had tits. I know what they look like because I see a pair every time I wash ’em.”

“Sofia, please.”

Sofia looked unmoved by the rebuke in McKinnon’s voice. He sipped his tea to give himself time to think. “Perhaps…I’ve heard of men who are anatomically incomplete. I suppose it’s possible that Barry may have been an…imperfect man. Perhaps I should have examined him myself.”

“You most certainly should, and you’d have seen no man, imperfect or otherwise. Just a woman as complete as the one who stands before you. And might I ask, you being a doctor, could an imperfect man carry a child?”

“Sofia, must we…?” McKinnon saw she would not be satisfied without an answer. “No, of course not. An imperfect man is a man who never fully emerged from boyhood, but a man nonetheless.”

“I thought so. Well, I’ve had nine children and delivered as many of my own grandchildren. I know stretch marks when I see them.”

Perhaps it was Sofia’s Ulster accent that left McKinnon feeling his understanding was left behind what she was saying. It took a moment for her meaning to strike him with full force. The man he had known as Dr James Barry was a woman who had born a child. He landed his teacup on the saucer that he was left with the handle in the curl of his forefinger.

“If the woman you call Dr Barry never bore a child, I’m the Duchess of Devonshire,” said Sofia.


Sofia’s lips hardened into a firm line. It was a stronger argument than any words she could have spoken.

McKinnon felt the world turning beneath his chair. This woman was no hysteric. The lines rimming her eyes bore witness to the experience that had led McKinnon to trust her with the laying out in the first place.

“Surely not.” McKinnon’s voice sounded far less certain than Sofia’s, even to McKinnon himself. “Surely no woman could even pass the exam as a doctor. Three years of study and then examination in Latin. And the rigors of forty years in the army. No woman could…”

His voice tailed off as he remembered service as a junior surgeon at the Siege of Sevastopol. He’d believed nothing was beyond the woman who operated Scutari field hospital with a brilliant mind and an iron will. Could Miss Nightingale have passed as a surgeon if medical schools admitted women? Most certainly. And if she could, why not another woman?

But yet, but yet…”Nine children, you say?”

“Indeed I did, sir?”

“And you delivered how many grandchildren? Thirteen, sir. Perhaps the doctors did not wish to intrude on my daughters’ dignity.”

“Possibly…though that never concerned Dr Barry. He cut a child right out of his mother once and brought them both back to health. First man to do that.”

“Must have known what she was cutting, then. Sir? Is something funny?”

McKinnon couldn’t stop himself from chuckling. “I am funny, Sofia. I am the most absurd creature on God’s green earth. I speak of rigors, yet I have always averted my eyes from…from that rigor that women must endure but which I did not wish to see.”

He went to the sideboard and poured out two glasses of sherry. He handed one to Sofia.

“A toast, Sofia. To Dr Barry, and to you. For making me a better doctor from today, and I hope a better man. And for the conniptions my letter is about to cause the general staff.”

Sofia was silent. McKinnon suspected it did not happen very often.


Related to last week’s pontification about the life of James Barry.


The burning question:

In real life, McKinnon, Sofia Bishop and the British Army kept the secret of James Barry’s gender for nearly a century. Why do you think it remained concealed long after women were admitted to the medical profession? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

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