Barry was described as irascible and prickly. Standing only five foot tall, with a high pitched voice, he responded angrily to the frequent taunting that was a part of Army life. In fact he fought at least two duels over insults - shooting an opponent in one and being injured in the other. He was also quite eccentric, travelling with his Jamaican manservant, John, his dog and a goat for milk. He also was always dressed in full regimentals, including cavalry sword and was noted for wearing 3 inch lifts in his shoes.
John Barry, his servant John and his dog, circa 1850
(public domain image sourced from Wikipedia)
This temper served him poorly in his career and seems to have affected his promotional prospects. However it may have advanced his reputation in other ways, Barry was described throughout his life as a ladies man, although he never married.
He started out as a hospital assistant, first Chelsea, then following a promotion, Plymouth. He was then transferred to India, then Cape Town in around 1817.
During his time in Cape Town he performed the surgical act for which he is perhaps most famous, the first Caesarean section in Africa in which both mother and baby survived. This was a rare event in the early 1800s, one of only a handful of successful procedures world wide and cementing that even if his bedside manner was poor, his surgical skills were assured. In Cape Town Barry became the medical inspector for the colony, again rubbing the community the wrong way with his frequent criticism of the handling of public health in particular.
From Cape Town, Barry was posted to Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago, St Helena, Malta and Corfu. He then put in a request for transfer to the Crimea, where a war was raging. The Army declined this, but Barry being Barry he defied them and went anyway.
Here, memorably, he came up against another well known figure, the legendary Florence Nightingale. Barry, however, had no time for the nursing pioneer, criticising her strongly for her hospital's overcrowding, poor hygiene and horrible mortality rate. (For her part Nightingale called Barry a 'brute' and a 'blackguard'.). Barry's hospital, by contrast, had the lowest mortality of any in the Crimean war.
Barry then went on to serve in Jamaica, Canada, St Helena, Malta, and the West Indies. By the time of his retirement he was at the top of his game, an Inspector General of Hospitals. This was after a slight blip in the road with a court martialing and demotion in St Helena for, once again, upsetting the locals with his passion for public health.
In 1864 James Barry was forced to retire due to ill health. He returned to England where in 1865 he died from dysentery.
This is where an already interesting story becomes fascinating.
Knowing he was dying Barry left strict instructions that no autopsy was to be performed. However, according to custom, his body had to be washed and laid out for burial. This was done by a charwoman named Sophia Bishop.
Sometime after Barry's funeral Ms. Bishop approached Major McKinnon, Barry's doctor and the man who issued his death certificate. Seeking money and a reccomendation for employment she told the doctor that she had discovered a great secret which clearly discredited his skills. Ms. Bishop informed Maj. McKinnon that the body she had laid out was 'perfectly female' and showed signs of stretch marks across her lower abdomen that seemed to indicate that at one time she had borne a child.
The army immediately moved to hush the scandal up and proceeded to seal Barry's service records for the next 100 years. Modern day sleuthing seems to indicate that James Barry was actually born as Margaret Ann Bulkley the daughter of Jeremiah and Mary-Ann Bulkley and the neice of the Irish painter, James Barry. The first documented evidence of 'James' was on the sea voyage from Ireland to Edinburgh in 1809. On this voyage James asked for all his letters to be forward to his 'Aunt' Miss Bulkley.
In other words Margaret Ann chose to live as James in order to go to medical school and practice as a surgeon, a profession forbidden to women at the time. To do this it seems she was aided by the astonishingly devoted John, who reportedly laid out towels every morning to pad her clothing and add extra bulk to her frame. It seems impossible that John didn't know, and yet he never spoke a word. Barry managed to spend an entire career pulling the wool over the Army's eyes.
As to the child, there is some conjecture that in 1819, a year missing from Barry's career record, she went to Mauritius and gave birth to a stillborn child, allegedly the result of a love affair with Lord Charles Somerset. None of that can be confirmed.
Her deception does mean that James Barry is the first confirmed female doctor. In this she predates Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman who openly obtained a medical degree, by nearly a decade.
One wonders, however, if this is simply the tip of the iceberg.
Sadly the controversy also serves to hide Barry's greater legacy in terms of the often unpopular strides he made in the name of public health. After all we couldn't possibly expect a woman to do all of that.....