Like so many historical figures, James Barry‘s gender identity is kind of a mystery because the language and understanding we have of gender today has really evolved immensely since the 19th century. Nevertheless, I feel pretty confident that James Barry was transgender and not just trying to escape the confines that came with being a woman in Regency era Britain. I’ll justify that as we go through this.
He was the second child born to Jeremiah and Mary-Ann Bulkley in Ireland, though there is very little information about his early life. He was named Margaret Anne Bulkley and lived as a girl until at least age 19. What little information can be found and verified seems to indicate he was born in 1789 — for instance, a letter dated January 14, 1805 states that the young “Miss Bulkley” was fifteen years old at the time. The date of birth is a bit confusing, because there are also sources that indicate he may have been born in 1792, 1795, or 1799. These are probably due to Barry lying about his age through his military career.
There is also some indication that Barry was assaulted as a child, resulting in a pregnancy. The child this produced is theorized to be the youngest Bulkley child, Juliana, who was raised as Barry’s sister.
The Bulkley family had serious financial difficulties — and ultimately they concocted a scheme to produce a better income. “Margaret Anne” adopted the name James Barry and posed as the nephew of the Irish artist James Barry (who was Mary-Ann Bulkley’s brother). Along with his mother (his “aunt” in letters), Barry boarded a ship bound for the University of Edinburgh in 1809. It is from the envelope of one letter from this trip that researchers were able to trace Barry back to his early childhood — the back of the envelope discreetly bore the words “Miss Bulkley, 14 December.” After this point, Barry never permitted anyone to see him change clothes and lived as a man both publicly and privately.
Barry began studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Due to his effeminate facial features, many students believed Barry to be a pre-pubescent boy (like, some kind of prodigy, I guess?) and the university even tried to stop him from taking the final exams because they believed he was too young. The Earl of Buchan intervened, and Barry graduated in 1812 and almost immediately enrolled in courses at the United Hospitals of Guy’s and St. Thomas’. On July 2, 1813, Barry passed the examination of the Royal College of Surgeons.
On July 6, 1813 Barry was commissioned as a hospital assistant in the British army. For anyone keeping track, that’s a four day turn around on graduating school and landing a job. Barry was initially stationed at Chelsea, and then sent to Plymouth to serve at the Royal Military Hospital there. He was promoted to Assistant Surgeon to the Forces (which apparently is the medical equivalent of a lieutenant) on December 7 of 1815.
In 1816, Barry was sent to Cape Town, South Africa. Barry’s previous benefactor, the Earl of Buchan, had sent a letter of introduction to the governor Lieutenant General Charles Henry Somerset. Barry quickly impressed the governor’s family by treating his ailing daughter. Barry was essentially welcomed as a member of the family, and in 1822 Somerset promoted Barry to Colonial Medical Inspector — which was a pretty massive jump in station and in responsibility. Barry spent the next decade significantly improving conditions — especially for slaves, prisoners, prostitutes and the mentally ill. Barry even made a priority out of improving the conditions in hospitals and leper colonies. Barry is notable for being one of the handful of medical professionals at the time who understood that humanitarian conditions — particularly hygiene, diet, and fresh air — were vital to sustain a healthy population and prevent the spread of disease.
Although he used excellent bedside manner with patients, Barry was otherwise outspoken, impatient, brash, and often tactless — particularly when it came to criticizing other people when it came to medical concerns and policies. Not surprisingly, a lot of people did not like Barry because of this but his close friendship with the governor shielded him from consequences. That’s probably a large factor in one major event that took place in 1824: Lieutenant General Charles Henry Somerset was accused of “buggering” Barry. An investigation and a trial followed.
Now, buggering — which, of course, was the act of homosexual intercourse — was still very illegal in the British Empire and could still carry the death penalty. Nevertheless, nobody even seems to have considered that Barry was biologically female and Barry certainly didn’t offer up this information. This is one reason that I’m convinced that Barry identified as a man — Barry never came forward to save Somerset. Somerset also never revealed anything, even though it’s considered probable that he knew.
Though the case failed to prove any buggering, it proved humiliating for both Somerset and Barry. Barry managed to redeem himself in June of the same year — by performing a Cesarean section (without anesthesia) where both the mother and child lived. This was one of the first times this ever done and was the first time this had been accomplished anywhere in the British Empire or, as far as we know, in Africa. This feat easily secured Barry’s position as the best doctor in the colony.
On November 22, 1827 Barry was promoted to Surgeon of the Forces. The following year, he was assigned a new posting in Mauritius. After only a year there, Barry took a leave because Lord Somerset had fallen in. Barry personally cared for Somerset until his death in 1831, at which point Barry was sent to Jamaica and then, in 1836, to Saint Helena.
Barry’s abrasive personality had not mellowed out over the years, and while stationed at Saint Helena he came into some sort of, let’s say, “gentleman’s disagreement” with another officer that resulted in Barry facing a court martial that ultimately found him not guilty.
In 1840, Barry was promoted to Principal Medical Officer and assigned to the Leeward and Windward Islands of the West Indies. His assignment was to improve the conditions of the soldiers stationed there. This posting was apparently uneventful until Barry contracted yellow fever in 1845 and returned to England on sick leave. After being cleared for duty in 1846, Barry was stationed in Malta where he quickly ruffled feathers by — apparently — sitting in a seat in church that was reserved for clergy. This led to a formal reprimand, but Barry was less concerned with hurt feelings and more concerned with the looming threat of cholera. The disease ultimate did breakout, despite Barry’s efforts, and he was called on to treat it.
Although the cholera epidemic lasted until 1860, Barry’s superiors sent him to Corfu in 1851. On May 16, they promoted him to the rank of Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals. Barry requested to be posted in Crimea, but the request was denied. In turn, Barry requested a leave and traveled to Crimea anyways. While there, Barry had a run-in with Florence Nightingale. The only descriptions I can find of the event come from Nightingale, but it sounds like Barry, on horseback, confronted her about something while she was (I’m guessing) crossing camp either to or from showers because she was basically naked. Whatever transpired, it left Nightingale with a deep dislike of Barry, whom she later described as “the most hardened creature [she] had ever met.”
On September 25, 1857 Barry received a promotion to Inspector General of Hospitals and was posted to Canada. He remained in this post, improving healthcare particularly for the poor, until he was forcibly retired from military service because of age and illness on July 19, 1859. He returned to London, where he lived quietly with only his servant John Joseph Danson (who had been with Barry since his first posting in South Africa) and a poodle named Psyche. Barry died from dysentery on July 25, 1865. Shortly thereafter, Danson disappeared — but is believed to have gone to Jamaica.
Despite having left strict instructions that his body not be examined in any capacity after his death, the truth of Barry’s biological sex was discovered. The physician who had issued the death certificate, Major D. R. McKinnon, had written on the certificate that Barry was a male. Afterwards, a woman — who is believed to have been laying out Barry’s body for burial — discovered Barry was biologically female and showed signs of having given birth at a young age. She attempted to use the secret to blackmail McKinnon. However, Barry had no known surviving family and McKinnon was not especially concerned (stating that he had figured Barry was a “hermaphrodite” but that it was “none of [his] business”), so he shrugged her off. The woman leaked this information to the press. A number of people responded by claiming to have known it all along, and Florence Nightingale responded by writing a scathing letter about how much she didn’t care what he was, she still really didn’t like him.
The British Army, in an effort to save face as women were allowed to be neither officers nor doctors and Barry had been both, sealed all records about Barry for the next hundred years. Isobel Rae, a history, gained access to the records in the 1950’s and ultimately pieced together Barry’s history from before he transitioned.
There’s a lot of discussion regarding whether or not Barry was truly transgender. Some would argue that because he transitioned with the help of his family in order to financially aid his family means it was all an elaborate ruse. Obviously, I’m firmly in the other camp that he was — living as a man even in private, not even breaking from his gender expression to prove a friend innocent of buggery, and trying to maintain that gender identity even in death despite not having any surviving family — to me, that all indicates someone who vehemently identified as a man.