conduct unbecoming

James Barry (c. 1789 –  1865), was a military surgeon in the British Army.

image found here

“Among his accomplishments was the first caesarean section in Africa by a British surgeon in which both the mother and child survived the operation. Although Barry lived his adult life as a man, it is widely believed that he was born a female named Margaret Ann Bulkley and that he chose to live as a man so that he might be accepted as a university student and be able to pursue his chosen career as a surgeon.

image found here

Margaret was born in Ireland in 1789, the second child of Jeremiah and Mary-Ann Bulkley. The child’s mother was the sister of James Barry, a celebrated Irish artist and professor of painting at London’s Royal Academy. However, a family crisis left Mary-Ann and Margaret without the support of Jeremiah Bulkley. Letters during this time of financial hardship refer to a conspiracy between Mary-Ann and some of her brother’s influential, liberal-minded friends to get the teenager – then still known as Margaret – into medical school.

self portrait by James Barry found here

A letter to the family solicitor shows that Mary-Ann and Margaret travelled to Edinburgh by sea in November 1809.  The letter also indicated that the younger traveller had assumed a male identity upon embarking on the voyage. Following his arrival in Edinburgh, Barry began studies as a ‘literary and medical student’. He qualified with a Medical Doctorate in 1812, then moved back to London.

Edinburgh found here

Barry was commissioned as a Hospital Assistant with the British Army, taking up a post in the Royal Military Hospital in Plymouth, where he was promoted to Assistant Staff Surgeon. After that he served in India and South Africa. Barry’s next postings included Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago, and the island of Saint Helena. In Saint Helena he got into trouble for leaving for England unannounced. Later he served in Malta, the Crimea, Jamaica, and Canada.

St Helena found here

He was a misfit from the start: less than 5ft tall, he wore stacked heels and had to have 3in soles fastened to his boots to give him elevation. But the flamboyant styles of the day – men dressed effeminately as a fashion, not a sexual statement – worked in his favour. 

elephant dung stacked heels found here

He rapidly became known for his foibles, which included sleeping every night with a black poodle called Psyche, riding about in dress uniform wearing a cavalry sword and taking a goat everywhere so he could drink its milk. Despite “a most peculiar squeaky voice and mincing manner”, as one ambassador’s daughter noted, Dr Barry’s fierce temper ensured he was a force to be reckoned with.

goat found here

Barry was not always a pleasant fellow to be around. He could be tactless, impatient, argumentative and opinionated. He reputedly fought a couple of duels when someone commented on his voice and feminine features, though he appears to have had a good bedside manner and professional skill. He was a vegetarian and teetotaler and reputedly recommended wine baths for some (lucky) patients.

Wine Bath image found here

James Barry retired in 1864 — reputedly against his wishes — and returned to England. He died from dysentery a year later. Sophia Bishop, the charwoman who took care of the body, discovered his female anatomy and revealed this information after the funeral. Many people then claimed to have “known it all along”.

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46 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Just one look at those surgeon instruments make me so happy we live in the time in which we do although I think cancer treatment protocols are pretty barbaric as time will reveal.

    • I’m happy that we have anaesthetic! Imagine undergoing an operation while fully awake and unmedicated – except for a shot of rum.

      • It would take a considerable amount of rum for me to handle even hearing about a surgery like that…

  2. tranny surgeons in the seventeenth century! my lord,
    where was pat robinson when you really needed him.

    • Pat Robinson or Pat Robertson?

  3. I think I recognize that goat…

    • He looks very friendly

  4. It was so hard for women to do a “real” job back then. Things may have changed in some parts of the world but the majority are still frustrated by male insecurities! *cuts off rant before it begins!*

    • you can always rant here Archie.

      • But my rants are soooooo loooong! 🙂

      • they’re/you’re still welcome xx

  5. We’ve definitely come a long way since then. Doing the job I do, I’d probably have had to disguise as a man if I were alive back then too!

    The goat is just too adorable.

    • Isn’t he? I wonder how he’d like living in inner city Sydney?

  6. I’m quite taken with the goat idea. I like goats.

  7. what a sacrifice. i suppose he must have wanted it so much.

    • It’s good to strive for something. the feeling of achievement would make it all worthwhile.

  8. He won a couple of duels?
    I’m impressed!

    • “reputedly” fought a couple of duels. It’s not certain.

  9. “…he chose to live as a man so that he might be accepted as a university student and be able to pursue his chosen career as a surgeon.”

    Thank God times have changed.

    • Well, for most of us anyway.

  10. IN the army? Didn’t hey have communal shower arrangements?

    • Not for officers, which is what a doctor would have been

  11. It’s a great story isn’t it. Another life less ordinary!

    • Every time I think I’m going to run out of Gimcrack material, I find another one.

  12. It truly amazes me what women would do back then in order to pursue a career. I find it quite interesting that in order to maintain the fiction that she was a man, Barry felt compelled to fight duels when accused of being effeminate. How ironic.

    • The fighting duels part is uncertain but it’s still a fascinating story.

  13. Must have been quite a bold thing to do to get her admitted as a him into the university. I wonder how common that practice might have been back then?

    • Probably more common that we would suppose

  14. About time I visited my doctor and reminded her of the wine bath treatment. I think she’s a woman doctor but who knows? Her voice seems a little too deep somehow. And such large hands….

    • all the better to palpate you with Nick

  15. if i’d been forced to live my life as a man just to pursue my chosen career path? i might have developed a fierce temper as well… remarkable story!

  16. That elephant dung footwear makes me giggle. Thankyou. 🙂

    • I love to make you laugh darlin’

  17. Goat salami – I think original salami is made from asses: “So frisch, dass man die Esel noch quieken hört!” And I really wonder how Tirza’s “wine bath” did work …

  18. Oh poor Margaret. I wish she could have broken through the glass celiing without wearing men’s clothes and being grumpy.

    If only we could say “that’s all in the past now.” sigh

  19. What a strain that must have been, all those years of deception. And what about falling in love? “Erm… there’s something I’d better tell you before we er…”

  20. aaaah, my friend was going to work on a film about this person – fascinating!!!

    • Did they go ahead with the film?

  21. The picture of Barry reminds me a lot of Tilda Swinton.

    • I can see a resemblance

  22. A wine bath! Why have I never thought of that?

    • It sounds a bit sticky…..

  23. I’m not one for baths, and a wine shower sounds too horror movie-esque. Thwarted again.

    I think I’ll just admire that goat, who really seems to have stolen the show.

    • He’s such a scene stealer.

  24. “Dude looks like a lady,” huh! I can’t blame her for changing her sexual identity to enter medical school–it really was a man’s world back then, and so many women had to change their names, etc. to get into a good profession (e.g. the writer, George Sand). She does sound quite eccentric though–especially with the goat!

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