It was the charwoman, Sophia Bishop, who uncovered the truth about Dr James Barry. Her discovery proved a great embarrassment to the distinguished members of the medical profession, who had failed to guess the doctor’s secret, despite their former colleague’s diminutive stature and smooth complexion.
An embarrassment indeed, considering Dr Barry was one of the most outstanding doctors of the Victorian age, a celebrated surgeon who pioneered new treatments, and performed one of the first Caesarean sections.
It was only after the doctor’s death in 1865, as his body was laid out that Sophia Bishop could see Barry was a “perfect female.” She also noticed what appeared to be stretch marks on Barry’s stomach indicating the doctor had once been pregnant.
As the news of this discovery spread, there was a frenzy of press speculation in a bid to uncover the truth of the doctor’s identity.
The Medical Times reported although the Army had failed to order a post-mortem to settle the matter, their sources said the facts about both Dr Barry’s sex and her maternity were true.
Other witnesses also commented on the late doctor. The Dean of McGill Medical School in Canada, who had treated Barry for a chest infection, explained his ignorance of Barry’s sex by stating the bedroom had always been in almost total darkness when he paid his calls and this was why he had failed to notice anything unusual.
Staff Surgeon Major Dr McKinnon, who had described Barry as male on her death certificate, admitted he hadn’t been sure whether Dr Barry was male, female or hermaphrodite, but that he had no purpose in making such a discovery.
Dr James Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley in Ireland in 1792. A highly intelligent child, Bulkley desired to study at university, something forbidden to women at that time. However, in 1809, she travelled with her mother to Edinburgh, where she enrolled under the name of James Barry as a student of Medicine and Literature. From existing correspondence, it is obvious Mrs. Bulkley was complicit in her daughter’s subterfuge.
Barry proved a brilliant student and qualified as a Doctor in 1812 – the first woman to ever do so in Britain. It is impossible to guess just how isolated James Barry must have felt, not just in her student days but throughout her entire lonely, single-minded existence. Her secret was shared by so few, the burden of deception heavy. Barry moved to London, where she qualified at the Royal College of Surgeons, and in 1813, was commissioned into the Army as Regimental Assistant.
Bulkley continued with her disguise as a man and may have served at Waterloo, before travelling to India and then to South Africa, where she served as military doctor and personal surgeon to the Governor of the Cape, Lord Charles Somerset. It was while serving as Somerset’s physician that the first rumors spread aboout Barry’s gender, as it is believed Barry and Somerset were lovers, and it was here she gave birth to a child.
Despite her diminutive stature, Barry was a fine duelist, and is said to have successfully dueled in order to have a leper colony built. For the next 40 years, Barry served as an Army Surgeon, eventually reaching the position of Inspector General H. M. Army Hospitals. In 1864, Barry reluctantly retired, and returned to England, where she died in 1865, her body was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery, London.
Even by today’s standards, Dr. Barry’s career was remarkable - prodigiously talented and dedicated, her work on hygiene and preventative medicine was pioneering; her concern for the welfare of prisoners, lepers and inmates of the lunatic asylum was revolutionary. Dr Barry campaigned for better medical care for the common soldier and, long before the advent of antiseptic and anesthetics, performed the first successful Caesarean section ever carried out by a British doctor, saving the life of both mother and child.