Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Unbelievable Secret of Dr James Barry

Amongst the parade of dignitaries making the pilgrimage to Frederick Korsten’s country estate 5 miles from Port Elizabeth, was Dr James Barry, one of the most highly respected surgeons of his day. He had risen from hospital assistant to become the top-ranking doctor in the British Army and was known as a zealous reformer who had served in garrisons from South Africa to Jamaica. Accompanying him on his visit to Frederick Korsten at Cradock Place was the governor Lord Charles Somerset.

Barry’s secret life would almost certainly have been taken to his grave if the hospital staff had obeyed his last wish that he be buried in his night clothes. This would have hidden the fact that Dr. James Barry was in fact a female.

How had this been possible?

Main picture:   Dr James Barry

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. He even crossed swords with another leading medical figure of his day, Florence Nightingale, who later described him as “a brute” and “the most hardened creature I ever met throughout the Army”.

New research among a cache of letters, accounts and legal documents has helped to make sense of the extraordinary life of Dr James Barry. But the flamboyant styles of the day – men dressed effeminately as a fashion, not a sexual statement – worked in her favour.

How deception plan arose
Despite suggestions that she was a hermaphrodite to explain away Dr Barry’s ability to have begun life as a female, yet successfully persuade everyone that she was a man. But the simple truth is she was a woman, born in Ireland as Margaret Ann Bulkley sometime in the 1790s, the daughter of Mary-Ann and Jeremiah, a greengrocer from Cork. In 1803, Jeremiah Bulkley was sent to prison for debt and his wife turned to her brother, the famous artist James Barry, to help ease the family’s financial troubles.

Barry was part of a liberal, forward-thinking set who were keen believers in women’s rights and education, and when he died in 1806, leaving some money to the Bulkleys, his influential friends gladly took Margaret and her mother under their wing. The Bulkleys moved first to London, where Margaret began to take lessons from the physician Edward Fryer. Margaret proved to be an able pupil and before long an even more elaborate, if not preposterously ambitious, plan had been hatched for her future.

At that time, women were not permitted to enter university, so it was decided that she would masquerade as a man and train as a doctor. In 1809, Margaret – assuming her uncle’s name, James Barry – sailed from London to Edinburgh where she planned to enrol at the university as a medical student, and she and her mother intended to establish themselves as aunt and nephew.

The fact that she was studying far from home meant that in the age preceding the telephone and social media, anonymity was assured. To ensure that her true identity was not revealed, the establishment of a new life was total. She even adopted her uncles name of James Barry. Mother and daughter isolated themselves from anyone who might not be trusted to keep this darkest of secrets.

After completion of her studied she joined the army.

Posting to the Cape Colony
Following her military training, Barry was posted to Cape Town in 1816. There, she acquired a black manservant who would stay with her for the next 50 years, and whose trusted task it was to lay out six small towels each morning that she would use like bandages to disguise her curves and broaden her slender shoulders.

She rapidly became known for her 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 she could drink its milk. She also acquired a reputation as a ladies’ man, perhaps believing this would give her better cover.

As fearless in her professional as she was in her personal life, Barry instigated a sweeping series of reforms and effected significant changes over ten years of work in the Cape. Included in this set of improvements, he campaigned against poor sanitation and water systems and overcrowding in the Cape’s prisons, the provision of a sanctuary for the leper population, improved conditions for enslaved people, prisoners and the mentally ill as well as the soldiers who were her duty to look after.

Through Lord Buchan, Barry had a letter of introduction to the Governor, Lieutenant General Lord Charles Somerset. Following the successful, even spectacular, treatment of Lord Charles’s sick daughter, Barry was welcomed into the family, maintained a close friendship with the Governor, and became his personal physician. In 1822 Somerset appointed Barry as Colonial Medical Inspector, an extraordinary jump in expectations from Barry’s low military rank, which brought with it great responsibility.

It was during this period that Barry must have accompanied Lord Chales Somerset on his periodic inspection of the colony. It would have been a tiring affair with many hours in the saddle. She might have even been forced to share a tent with the unsuspecting Governor. Yet despite the constant close proximity to Lord Charles, he apparently never suspected anything.

In Lord Charles Somerset, Dr Barry had a powerful ally whose protection must have helped to repel any uneasy rumours. Barry’s sharp tongue and fierce redhead’s temper did the rest. For a period of about one year – around 1819 – Barry disappeared.  Afterwards she claimed to have been sent to Mauritius, but some historians believe she may have fallen pregnant and given birth to a stillborn child.

But she returned, and in 1826 cemented her reputation as a master surgeon when, despite knowing that no woman in Britain had ever survived the procedure, she conducted an emergency Caesarean on one Mrs Munnik – on her kitchen table – and saved her life as well as the baby’s. The child was christened James Barry Munnik in Barry’s honour, and the name was passed down through the family, leading to Barry’s name being borne by a later Prime Minister of South Africa, J. B. M. Hertzog.

Barry remained in South Africa until 1828, when she embarked on a series of postings to Mauritius, Jamaica and St Helena, among other places.

Later life
Along with her loyal servant from South Africa, she came back to London and it was there that she succumbed to a diarrhoea epidemic that eventually killed her.

Right until the end Barry had done everything to prevent her secret from being discovered, even requesting that no post-mortem be carried out on her corpse. If her instruction had been obeyed, the fact that Dr Barry was indeed not a male would literally have meant that her secret would have gone to the grave.

Dr Barry’s deathbed sex secret by Victoria Moore


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