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Cross-Dressing Sphinx: Dr. James Barry

Updated on March 5, 2016

When There's a Will ...

Cross-Dressing Sphinx: Dr. James Barry/Margaret Ann Bulkey

The 18th century wasn't exactly a female-friendly time period. Women and girls were still largely as property, denied most legal rights, and many believed that their brains were too small to really benefit from any kind of education. We know now (and really, we've known this forever) that women are equal in all ways to men, that they are not property and that they are just as intelligent to men. But it was a different story back then, and any girl who woman who tried to defy the ridiculous beliefs of that era were physically, emotionally, intellectually and publicly stomped down.

So what's a girl to do when she wants a good education? She disguises herself as a boy and enrolls into a university ... which is exactly what Margaret Ann Bulkey did.

Born possibly in 1789 in Dublin, Ireland (we assume), Margaret was the second of three children born to Jeremiah and Mary-Ann Bulkey. Margaret's uncle was the famous artist James Barry, and it has been speculated that her uncle was able to use his connections to get Margaret into medical school. Around 1808 when she might have been about sixteen years old, Miranda cut her hair, dressed in boy's clothes, then enrolled herself into Edinburgh University as a medical student named, "James Barry," which how we will be referring to her as from now on.

The other students may have noticed something odd about her--one remarked that Barry was a "frail-looking young man" with the "form, manners and voice of a woman." They also found it odd that Barry wouldn't participate in boxing, and that if she ever did get into the ring, rather than holding up her arms to guard her face she would cover her chest instead (if she was ever punched there it would certainly give her away!). However, Barry took up fencing and became extremely adapt at the art--indeed, Barry was involved in several duels throughout her life and was alleged to have slain at least one man.

Save for one student named Jobson (who taught her fencing), Barry never made any close friends at the university, acting deliberately cold and arrogant to keep them away and thus protecting herself. Whether Jobson knew or suspected Barry's true identity we don't know, but Jobson's determination to become an army surgeon steered Barry into that occupation as well. Upon obtaining her medical degree in 1812, Barry and Jobson enlisted in the army as medical assistants. Unfortunately, they were placed in different units and never saw each other again.

Early Portrait of James Barry

Early portrait of James Barry
Early portrait of James Barry

Brilliant but Difficult

In 1816 Barry was assigned to a post at a garrison in Cape Town, South Africa as an assistant surgeon. She acquired a reputation for quick-thinking and speed in operations, a skill greatly valued in the days before anesthesia. However, she also gained a reputation for her quick temper, petulant behavior and odd habits, such as riding side-saddle on her pony while holding a parasol to shield her fair skin from the sun, being a vegetarian and drinking extremely diluted champagne.

Barry argued frequently with superiors and other officers who reacted in varying degrees of exasperation or amusement. Barry had become friends with Governor Lord Charles Somerset, but even argued with him; once Somerset became so fed up with Barry that he picked the little doctor up and dumped her out a low window. Somehow tempers were soothed after the incident, but shortly thereafter Barry became so irritated that the governor was spending so much time with a visiting woman that she rudely remarked to her superior, a Dr. Cleote, "I say, that's a nice Dutch filly the governor has gotten a hold of!" Cleote was furious and demanded that Barry retract the statement--and tweaked her nose on top of it. Barry flew into a rage and challenged Cleote to a duel. Meeting outside the fortress, Barry and Cleote aimed their pistols at one another and fired. Barry missed Cleote, but Cleote's bullet struck Barry. Barry staggered, but declined another surgeon's help, instead climbing into her carriage and racing back to her house. She lived with the embedded bullet for the rest of her life.

Despite the near fatal duel, Barry didn't learn her lesson, and soon afterwards challenged Colonel Shadwell Clarke to a duel, but Cleote quickly put a stop to it. Some time later, Barry got into a heated argument with an officer in the mess hall, but when the officer challenged her to a duel, Barry dismissed him scornfully. After a superior officer ordered her out of the mess, Barry was so angry that she demanded that an investigation into the superior officer's actions--and was amazed when the investigation ruled against her. Finally sick of Barry's tantrums, Governor Somerset sent Barry back to England under open arrest.

Apparently Barry had some friends high places, because not long after returning to England, she managed to get some strings pulled and she was sent to a new post in the West Indies with a new rank--Surgeon Major. Unbelievably, Barry
didn't care for the West Indies and soon sailed back to England--without telling anyone! Called before a review council, the army demanded to know why Barry had abandoned her post. Barry answered coolly, "Well, I needed my hair cut." The army wasn't exactly thrilled with her cute answer, but she was a brilliant surgeon and they couldn't afford to lose her. They assigned her to a new post in St. Helena off the coast of Africa, but Barry didn't care for the hot climate or any of the people she worked with, and after returning to England--again under arrest--she was thus transferred ... back to the West Indies. Barry was in the West Indies during the devastating yellow fever epidemic and served with distinction, but she ultimately contracted the serious disease and was sent back to England.

In 1844, Barry was recovering from yellow fever when a young subaltern in the British army suggested to a junior doctor that they pay Barry a visit. After being admitted into the house, the pair entered Barry's room and found "him"
sleeping. What possessed the young officers to do what they did next isn't clear, but for some reason one of them pulled back Barry's bedsheets and saw that she was a woman. Horrified, they both leaped back with a yelp, waking Barry. Barry
instantly knew what had happened and she made them swear to keep her secret. Shocked and ashamed for what they did, the two young officers faithfully kept their silence until Barry's death in 1865.

After successfully recovering from yellow fever, Barry was then assigned to duties in Crimea during the Crimean War (1854-56). There Barry actually got into a heated exchange with, of all people, Florence Nightingale, over the treatment of
patients. Florence Nightingale was so insulted that she referred to Barry as a "brute" and "the most hardened creature I ever met throughout the army."

In 1858, Barry shared a ship cabin with a Colonel Rogers. After Barry's death and discovery, Rogers wrote a fictionalized account of Barry's life called A Modern Sphinx, in which he claimed that during the time he shared the cabin with her, Barry used to order him out every morning so that she could dress in private.

Dr. James Barry

Dr. James Barry (left) with manservant and dog, 1850
Dr. James Barry (left) with manservant and dog, 1850

The Truth Comes Out

Barry was retired from the army in 1862, settling into a house on Down Street in London, England. By 1865, Barry was expecting a promotion from the army and even had a new uniform tailored for her when she suddenly and rapidly took ill and died on July 15, 1865. Her black manservant John (possibly the only person she had ever truly been nice to), dutifully called a charwoman to come in and prepare the body for funeral. Finally having a moment to rest, John had just settled down and closed his eyes when the woman burst into his room demanding to know why she had been called into to prepare the body of a man when the body was clearly that of a woman? Shocked, John rushed to see for himself, and was beside himself with disbelief to discover that the person he had for years believed was a man named James Barry was, in fact, a woman. Not only a woman, but judging by the marks on her abdomen, the charwoman allegedly claimed, a woman who had given birth.

Word soon leaked out, and the British army launched an inquiry. How in the world had Barry gotten enlisted into the British army when a physical had been required for all new recruits? Had someone else gone in her place? Was the physical exam forged? She had been sick on numerous occasions, how had no one noticed when they had to exam her? Dr. George William Campbell (dean of the medical facility at McGill University) stated that when he had treated Barry for influenza, "he" had always kept the room too dark for Campbell to see anything. Staff Surgeon Major Dr. McKinnon had listed Barry's sex on the death certificate as male, later claiming that he didn't know if Barry was female, male or hermaphroditic, but he had no interest in knowing for sure.

And this supposed pregnancy; if it did happen, when was it? After she had been dismissed from her post in Cape Town, there was a period of time in 1819 where Barry seemed to have disappeared, and thought she claimed she had been stationed in Mauritius, a British colony on an island in the Indian Ocean, but there was no record of her there. Could it have been during that time she delivered a child? Is it possibly that her friend Governor Somerset of Cape Town had something to do with it?

Ultimately, the British army concluded that James Barry was indeed a woman, and (likely embarrassed and not wanting to draw more attention to the scandal) canceled her military funeral despite all the years of service she had given, including writing about a treatment for syphilis and gonorrhea with a plant found on the Cape of Good Hope, delivering Britain's first successful Caeseran section, fighting medical quackery, improving sanitation in hospitals and jails, treating lepers and saving the lives of hundreds of people. She was buried in Kensal Green and her tombstone makes no acknowledgement of her contributions or her gender.

Dr. James Barry works cited:

The Mammoth Book of Heroic and Outrageous Women, by Gemma Alexander
Hell Hath No Fury, by Rosalind Miles
They Went Whistling, by Barbara Holland
The Usborne Book of Famous Women, by Philipa Wingate et al
"James Barry,:
"James Barry,"
"Dr. Barry's Deathbed Sex Secret,"
"James Barry,"

Headstone of Dr. James Barry

James Barry's headstone
James Barry's headstone


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    • Steven Jeffers profile image

      Steven D Jeffers 

      5 years ago from Jellico

      Interesting article, and this is one story that I never came across during my years of research of the History of England. However, your story is amazing, and I have heard of other stories in which a woman would dress herself up as a man so that she could follow her dream. I have read that this often happened in earlier years when a female artist decided to follow her dream. Again this was a great article. Please feel free to read some of my hubs I have on here, and I look forward in reading some more of yours as well.


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