A Victorian doctor had lived and died a man.

For five decades, he worked fervently among a circle of men. The British doctor was five feet tall, slightly slouched, and had masculine features like a large nose, that stood out against a dyed red crop.

But beneath that tough façade and dignified white coat lies a deceptive tale, known only to himself till his last breath in 1865.

Doctor’s gender discovered at deathbed

Dr James Barry left behind his travelling companion – a trunk showcasing clippings of women’s fashions – which hinted at a possible inconsistency about his gender identity.

However, his real identity only came to light when a charwoman stumbled upon the most startling discovery that shocked not just his peers but the entire Victorian community.

At his deathbed, as the charwoman removed the bedclothes, she saw not a man’s body but “the genitals, the deflated breast and the hairless face” that was undeniably female.

A woman took the name Dr James Barry and disguised as a man in order to practise as a doctor during the Victorian era. Photo credit: Oneworld Publications/The Guardian
A woman took the name Dr James Barry and disguised as a man in order to practise as a doctor during the Victorian era. Photo credit: Oneworld Publications/The Guardian

Further confirmations pointed to the pronounced stretchmarks that suggested an earlier pregnancy. His gender was in question: Was Dr James Barry a real woman in man’s clothing?

More revelations surfaced soon after. Words and events somehow started to piece together like a huge jigsaw puzzle once well-scrambled.

In his final wish, the doctor has insisted that he should not be changed out of the clothes in which he died. Another doctor who had treated Barry for a chest infection in Canada recalled the bedroom always being in darkness when he examined him.

“Were I not a girl, I would be a soldier”

Born to a greengrocer Jeremiah in 1789, Margaret Anne Bulkley could have followed the life course for women in her time – get married and raise her children. Though she was bright and spirited, she was given minimal education. After all, Victorian women were seen to be better off as docile wives while men take the lead.

However, Margaret was different from her female counterparts in Cork. She wanted to be a doctor despite knowing that it was impossible for universities to admit women then.

Retold in a biography, she had once said to her brother, “Were I not a girl, I would be a soldier!”

It was rumoured that Margaret was raped while in her teens by an uncle and conceived a child, Juliana, whom her parents took as their own. When Margaret was 17, she and her mother, Mary Ann, moved to London while her father left on a convict ship to New South Wales. Nothing was heard about Juliana.

Margaret had met her uncle, James Barry, a royal academician and painter who left her family some money before he died in 1806.

Three years later, under her uncle’s name, Margaret masqueraded as a man to enrol in medicine in Edinburgh and later work as an apprentice to a surgeon in London.

A highly respected surgeon of her time

Barry soon became a renowned military surgeon, and was promoted to the highest army medical post as the inspector general of hospitals. In 1826, he performed one of the first successful caesareans with the patient lying on a kitchen table, at a time when anaesthetics and antiseptics were unheard of.

He was fiercely bold, and could not tolerate the mismanagement of barracks, prisons and asylums. Barry improved sanitary conditions and alleviated the suffering of both the wounded soldiers and native inhabitants.

Passionate and dedicated, he treated rich and poor, colonists and slaves alike. Though he had a fiery temper, he was calm and reassuring to his patients.

Barry was certainly ahead of his time, not just in terms of his liberation from female suppression, but for medical treatment. He had advised on fresh air, exercise and good food in an era when bloodletting and leeches were used to treat illnesses. Following a vegetarian diet, he was said to travel with a goat for his milk supply.

Though his private life remains shrouded in mystery, his notable achievements would accord him the title of being a highly respected medical pioneer.

Barry became the first woman to graduate in medicine by living one bold lie and one big dream. As a result, she saved the lives of countless of patients. MIMS

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