“A perfect female” – the fascinating tale of Dr James Barry at the Cape

The only known portrait of Dr James Barry. Painted about 1813. Artist unknown
The only known portrait of Dr James Barry. Painted about 1813. Artist unknown

The newly-qualified doctor

Early in 1817 a slim, young and newly-qualified doctor stepped onto the docks in Cape Town to take up the position of staff surgeon to the British garrison stationed there. Dr James Barry had qualified as Doctoratus in Arte Medica in July 1812 from the University of Edinburgh, having completed the medical course there in four years and written and defended a thesis in Latin. The thesis dealt with the treatment of hernias.

From Edinburgh the young doctor went to London to become a “pupil” at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospitals. Here he was fortunate to study under the famous surgeons Mr (later Sir) Astley Paston Cooper and Mr Henry Cline.

Shortly after completing the two courses he followed at the hospitals he sat for the examination of the Royal College of Surgeons to qualify as a Regimental Assistant. Three days later, on 5 July 1813, Dr Barry joined the British Army as a Hospital Assistant.

Dr Barry was posted to the Cape, where he made his mark as an exceptionally capable and innovative physician, actually performing one of the earliest successful Caesarian sections in which both mother and child survived, as well as contributing to public health and the treatment of lepers and prisoners.

From the Cape Dr Barry was sent to the West Indies, Canada, the Crimea and Corfu before he returned to England in 1864.

The cold and wet of the English climate did not suit Dr Barry after his many years in more temperate climates (excepting, of course, the seven or so years in Canada and the much shorter period in the Crimea) and after a carriage ride in July 1865 he caught a chill and died on the 26th of that month, sad and alone.

All of the above would be relatively unexceptional at the time, except that Dr Barry was actually born Margaret Bulkley in County Cork, Ireland in about 1789, and there were no sex-change operations in those days.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
James Barry - self portrait. Image WikipediaThe origins of Dr James Barry. Image from SAMJ, 2008Francisco de Miranda in prison in Cdiz by Arturo Michelena. Image WikipediaWilliam Godwin, by Henry William Pickersgill. Image Wikipedia
James Barry - self portrait. Image Wikipedia
James Barry - self portrait. Image Wikipedia
The origins of Dr James Barry. Image from SAMJ, 2008
The origins of Dr James Barry. Image from SAMJ, 2008
Francisco de Miranda in prison in Cdiz by Arturo Michelena. Image Wikipedia
Francisco de Miranda in prison in Cdiz by Arturo Michelena. Image Wikipedia
William Godwin, by Henry William Pickersgill. Image Wikipedia
William Godwin, by Henry William Pickersgill. Image Wikipedia

How Margaret Bulkley became James Barry

In a highly readable and yet comprehensive article in the South African Medical Journal of January 2008, Dr Hercules Michael du Preez has written an account of how he believes the transformation of the young Irish girl Margaret Anne Bulkley into the accomplished male surgeon Dr James Barry was achieved.

Margaret was the daughter of Jeremiah and Mary Anne Bulkley. Mary Anne was the brother of James Barry (1741 - 1806), the Irish painter and Royal Academician.

Jeremiah and Mary Anne had three children, of whom Margaret was the middle on, born in 1789.

Due to financial misfortune, mostly related to their attempts to “marry up” their son John, the Bulkleys were forced to leave their home and in April 1804 Mary Anne dictated a letter to her brother James, the artist, whom she had not seen in 30 years. This letter, written for her by Margaret, told of the plight of the family, but was not a direct appeal for money.

The letter has a rather poignant postscript: “My mother is not able to write legible on account of a tremor in her hand, desired me to write for her.”

About two months later Mary Anne and Margaret were in London where they saw the esteemed brother James. After some hesitation he seems to have agreed to help the two women, especially in regard to Margaret's education.

James Barry moved in artistic and intellectual circles and had connections with a number of people of liberal persuasion, including a Venezuelan general who was deeply involved in the movement to achieve independence from Spain for his country, General Francisco Miranda, and William Godwin, widower of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the feminist book Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792.

It seems possible that a scheme to have Margaret gain a medical degree was hatched at the home of General Miranda, where her education was being broadened, with the idea of having her go to Venezuela to assist in the liberation of that country.

A big problem was the fact that at that time only men were allowed to attend medical school, and so for Margaret to qualify as a doctor she would have to take on a male identity. And that was the start of a unique, epic tale.

As Margaret had gained a place at the University of Edinburgh she and her mother left London for Scotland at the end of November 1809. They went by sea, and Margaret would presumably already have been dressed as a man, as, to quote Du Preez, “Embarking as a woman and later appearing on deck in men’s clothes would have been imprudent, a change the details of which would soon be doing the rounds in Edinburgh.”

So it would seem that Margaret Anne Bulkley became James Miranda Steuart Barry, the name she was known by for the rest of her life, sometime between the 28th and 30th November 1809. Only the family solicitor, Daniel Reardon, and her mother, seemed to be aware of the transformation. Not even her father Jeremiah was let into the secret.

Margaret Bulkley became Dr James Barry at her (his) graduation in 1812, joined the British Army in 1813, in which she might have been present at Waterloo, and came to the Cape, as previously mentioned, in 1817.

Lord Charles Somerset. Image Wikipedia
Lord Charles Somerset. Image Wikipedia

Dr Barry at the Cape

From the moment of his arrival in Cape Town, the petite young doctor made an impression, not for his appearance only, but also for the shortness of his temper.

Barry was soon nicknamed “die kapok doktor (the cotton wool doctor)” by the coloured people of Cape Town, for his habit of filling out his frail frame with at least six towels, which they mistook for cotton wool.

He always wore a long dragoons sword and extra long spurs on his boots. His favourite threat to anyone attempting to cross him was, “I should much like to cut off your ears,” spoken in a somewhat squeaky, high voice.

The Cape at that time was not short of eccentric people, but even in so unconventional a setting Dr Barry stood out, both for his temper and for his obvious skill. Any person who stood out from the crowd as he did was bound to attract stories and gossip which attached to him. There is no shortage of stories about the eccentric little doctor.

South African author Lawrence G. Green, in his book Grow Lovely, Growing Old (Howard Timmins, 1975) recounts many of these. Here is a selection of some of the best.

A clergyman, being stricken with a severe tooth ache, sent a note to Dr Barry asking him to come and pull the offending tooth. Dr Barry's response: “Does this stupid parson suppose that I am a vulgar tooth-drawer? If he had personally made this application, his cloth would not have saved his ears.”

Dr Barry then engaged a coloured farrier by the name of Thomas to attend to the clergyman. Thomas duly went to the clergyman's house with his vices and pincers and knocked on the door. On being asked his business he said, “Dr Barry has instructed me to come without delay to draw the tooth of a donkey.”

One day Dr Barry went to the Dutch Reformed Church in the Heerengracht (now Adderley Street) in the expectation of finding the governor, Lord Charles Somerset there. He walked into the church only to find the governor's pew empty, and immediately walked out again. Soon thereafter a verse appeared nailed on a tree in the town:

“With courteous devotion inspired,

Barry came to the temple of prayer,

But quickly turned round and retired

When he found that HIS Lord was not there.”

Dr Barry was also involved in a duel, with one Josias (later Sir Josias) Cloete, who, according to one version, said to Barry while they were out riding, “You ride more like a woman than a man,” at which Barry slashed his face with a whip.

The other version of the cause of the duel was that when the two of them were guests at a function at Government House, they noticed that Somerset was paying particular attention to a certain young guest.

Barry remarked, “That's a nice Dutch filly the Governor has got hold of.”

Cloete allegedly responded in fury, “Retract your vile expression, you infernal little cad.”

Whatever the cause of the conflict between the two, after the duel, in which neither was hurt, Cloete was sent to take charge of the British garrison on the lonely Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha.

Dr Barry's legacy at the Cape

Dr Barry left the Cape in 1828 for his next posting in Kingston, Jamaica.

During his time at the Cape he had often accompanied Lord Charles Somerset to the latter's hunting lodge above Camps Bay. This lodge is now the Roundhouse Restaurant and it is said that a pale ghost wearing a red British Army coat is sometimes seen walking about in the vicinity. To this day too coloured nursemaids will tell their charges: “Old Dr Barry's ghost will catch you if you stay out late.”

As Du Preez notes in his article, most people writing about Barry have concentrated on the sex issue, “... rather than for the real contributions that she made to improve the health and the lot of the British soldier as well as civilians.”

Lawrence Green wrote: “I prefer to remember Dr James Barry as the champion of the lepers and the ill-treated prisoners – the brave woman, kind at heart, who found Jacob Elliott with his thigh fractured but 'without a single comfort,' and eased his pain.”

The secret that Dr James Barry kept for more than 50 years was finally made known after his death in July 1865. The maid of the household in which Barry was lodging, Sophia Bishop, was asked to lay out the body in preparation for burial. While doing this she discovered that the person she had known as a man, was in fact “a perfect female.”

Barry was buried with full military honours in the graveyard at Kensal Green where his tombstone can still be seen.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2010

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Comments 55 comments

Scribenet profile image

Scribenet 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

Wonderful Hub! Sad that the doctor had to live her life in disguise. Perhaps that had something to do with the vile temper! At least she was better paid than any woman of her time. Enjoyed reading about her!


Mentalist acer profile image

Mentalist acer 6 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

I've recollection of various storys of this type of subterfuge during the past,but it was tended to be referred to in a whimsical and fabled account,and find this rather to be a fascinating biography,tonymac.;)


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 6 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

Very interesting. The repression of women in those days must have been horrible to motivate someone to disguise herself for so many years. I've heard other stories like this, including a rumor that one Pope was a woman.

It almost seems like something Shakespeare would write.


scarytaff profile image

scarytaff 6 years ago from South Wales

Well researched, tonymac. Amazing that she kept the secret all those years. A very enjoyable read.


IzzyM profile image

IzzyM 6 years ago from UK

This made for fascinating reading - more so because I had never heard of Dr. James Barry. Interesting and educational, and thankfully things have changed for women now. I wonder, all the same, why she kept up the pretence her whole life - after all, once she had qualified she was still a doctor. Or maybe they would have taken her certificate away if they knew the truth?


kashmir56 profile image

kashmir56 6 years ago from Massachusetts

Very interesting and captivating reading in this well written hub. She did what she had to do to be a doctor.

Great hub!!!


Earth Angel profile image

Earth Angel 6 years ago

Blessings to you this lovely Sunday morning!

GREAT Hub! GREAT read! I have never read the story; thank you for sharing!!

Blessings always, Earth Angel!


Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 6 years ago

Great story told awesomely beautifully! God bless Tony!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Scribenet - thanks for the comment. It is sad that she had to go through a life of deceit. A sad comment on the power of convention.

Love and peace

Tony


SteveoMc profile image

SteveoMc 6 years ago from Pacific NorthWest

Incredible story. What a life she had, and she sounds like she was a toughie too. Great fascinating read. Thanks.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Acer - thanks for stopping by and leaving such a great comment. This was a rather special case.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Rob - thanks for the comment. Yes, the Bard might have made quite a play out of this story! Repression was bad then, no doubt.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Taff - thanks for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed it.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Izzy - thanks for stopping by. I think the reason she had to keep it up was that she would most likely not have been allowed to practise if it were known that she was a woman. I find it incredible that she was able to keep it up for almost 60 years.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Kashmir - she did indeed! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Earth Angel - and blessings to you on this lovely Sunday evening! Thanks for coming by and leaving such a lovely comment.

Love and peace

Tony


always exploring profile image

always exploring 6 years ago from Southern Illinois

This story is so interesting.She must have hated the pretense and what a shame that she had to.Thank goodness that now we are almost treated as equals.We still have a way to go.I hope to see the first woman president in the near future.Thank you Tony for sharing this.

Best Wishes


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Micky - I thank you, kind sir! Always a pleasure to read your comments.

Bless you, my brotherman!

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Steve - thanks for the comment. She was quite a dame!

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Ruby - thanks for this great comment. I think women are treated better, but I would still say not well enough! I had some hopes for Hilary last time around!

Thanks again

Love and peace

Tony


neeleshkulkarni profile image

neeleshkulkarni 6 years ago from new delhi

very well researched and written Tony.Lovely read


Sophia Angelique 6 years ago

Interesting tale. I think I read it before, somewhere, years ago. Part of South African lore, I suppose.


munirahmadmughal profile image

munirahmadmughal 6 years ago from Lahore, Pakistan.

"A perfect female the fascinating tale of Dr. James Barry."

The hub is interesting, informative, and gracefully presented.

Had she not so pretended the character of a woman would have double grace. Why to conceal what she was?

This is one aspect.

A human male or female is so blessed by the Creator that he or she can perform any act to the extent of his capacity.

This is the second aspect.

This gives the food for thought that How kind is the Creator towards His creations every where.

This is the third aspect.

May God bless all.


prairieprincess profile image

prairieprincess 6 years ago from Canada

Tony, a wonderful, fascinating read! Like another reader said, this really is a comment on how the only way a woman in those days could pursue a career was to pretend to be a man ... thus giving away her chances at marriage, in order to be a doctor. What a choice she had to make, but seemed to be at peace with it, from the sounds of it. I love reading your hubs, TonyMac!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Neelesh - thanks for the great comment! I appreciate it very much.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Sophia - thanks for the visit and the comment. Yes, the story has become part of South African lore. I certainly grew up hearing about the good doctor!

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Munir - thanks for your interesting comment and kind words. I appreciate it very much that you came by. Glad you enjoyed the read.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

PrairiePrincess - thanks so much for your comment and very kind words. I appreciate them.

It is very sad how women had to sacrifice so much. I think they still do!

Love and peace

Tony


Loves To Read profile image

Loves To Read 6 years ago

Very interesting story Tony. I had not heard of this lady or man : ) before. But what a brilliant mind she must have had. To not only become a doctor but also to go through her whole life pretending she was a man. She would have needed a fiery temper because of her slight stature especially when she joined the British Army. What a gutsy lady for who knows what may have happened to her if anyone found out the truth. Great hub my friend.

Love and Hugs


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

LTR - thanks so much for your great comment! She must have been gutsy indeed and I would for sure not have liked to "cross swords" with her, literally or figuratively!

Love and peace

Tony


50 Caliber profile image

50 Caliber 6 years ago from Arizona

Tony, great write and an educating read, thanks, 50


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Dusty - thanks for stopping by, my friend. Glad you enjoyed it.

Love and peace

Tony


sameerk profile image

sameerk 6 years ago from India

wow cool hub , really enjoyed


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Sameerk - thanks so much for the cool comment!

Love and peace

Tony


prasetio30 profile image

prasetio30 6 years ago from malang-indonesia

I am glad to read your story about Dr.James Berry. Thanks for share with us. ~prasetio


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Prasetio - thanks so much for the very valued comment!

Love and peace

Tony


attemptedhumour profile image

attemptedhumour 6 years ago from Australia

Dr strangelove by the sounds of it. She did herself proud and no doubt helped many people recover their health. Cheers Tony an interesting story.


lionel1 profile image

lionel1 6 years ago

Wow, what an amazing read about Dr James Barry. I really take my hat off to you Sir, and would like to thank you for such an amazing Hub.


Hummingbird5356 profile image

Hummingbird5356 6 years ago

I have heard about Dr Barry before. This is a very interesting hub. Thanks.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Attemptedhumor - thanks for the comment! Dr Strangelove indeed! Interestingly there were some who suggested Barry was having a homosexual relationship with Lord Charles Somerset, never realising that if she were having an affair with him it would have been a hetero one!

Thanks for coming by.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Lionel - I thank you, sir, for your kind words! Glad you enjoyed it.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Hummingbird - glad you enjoyed the read. Thanks for stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony


gulnazahmad profile image

gulnazahmad 6 years ago from Pakistan

She did all this because she wanted to be what she was. A very fascinating story. Keep writing!!!


BeatsMe profile image

BeatsMe 6 years ago

What an extraordinary story. She must've had a really hard time pretending to be a man. Then again, she isn't the only woman in history to do that. Great hub. Cheers.


Kaie Arwen profile image

Kaie Arwen 6 years ago

Tony- This was fascinating! Thanks for a GREAT read........... I completely enjoyed this! Kaie


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Gulnaz - thanks for the comment. Glad you enjoyed the story!

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

BeatsMe - thanks, and of course, she is not the only one! She must have had a hard time indeed.

Thanks for the kind words.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Kaie - thanks for stopping by and leaving such a super comment.

Love and peace

Tony


saddlerider1 profile image

saddlerider1 6 years ago

Tony is always amazes me how some people will go to great length to hide who they really are deep inside. I know of a few in my life who have done that with much success and have thrived in their new identity. I take my hat off to people's who can be who they really are inside and go on to achieve their happiness in life. Absolutely fascinating read, bravo Tony for this well researched read...peace


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Ken - I thank you deeply for the kind words and I'm glad you liked the read. It takes a special person to live their life without mask or facade, and a special kind of courage to put on a mask in order to be who they really are! Makes one question the masks we all wear.

Thanks again

Love and peace

Tony


Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 6 years ago from UK

This put me in mind of the story of Pheobe Hassel, a Brighton lass who enlisted as a soldier, and served 17 years disguised as a man. She is buried in the graveyard of St Nicholas's church in Brighton.

I really enjoyed reading this account of Dr Barry. He/she was clearly a remarkable person, and you told the story really well. Thank you for posting it.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Amanda - that sounds like a fascinating story too! Would like to read your Hub about her (when you write it - LOL!). Seriously.

Thanks for the comment.

Love and peace

Tony


msorensson profile image

msorensson 5 years ago

Remarkable courage. Thank you for sharing her story, Tony. She must have really wanted to be a doctor and serve as a doctor. Funny name for the dog.Psyche.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Melinda - She must have been amazingly brave and resourceful. I would have liked to have met her.

Her dog's name is funny, but I think there is something meaningful in it. Apparently she had a number of dogs in her life and called all of them 'Psyche'! Fascinating

Thanks for stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony


Anniversaire 4 years ago

I just viewed your derumontacy, and it touched me so much. Your story resonates with me because my parents both came to America from Poland, and it took my mom 20 years to become an American citizen. It breaks my heart that your family has to suffer because of American’s unfair immigration laws. I am a high school English/Journalism teacher, and I will share this story with my senior classes for our social awarness unit. I want to break the stereotypes and biases that the media portrays in the media and show them the raw repercussions of what the unfair immigration system has done to innocent families like yours. I will pray that your family is reunited and happy once again. No one deserves to live like that, especially not in America.

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