The Extraordinary Story Of James Barry - The Groundbreaking 19th Century Physician



Ahoy there and welcome to this week's week's instalment of 'Blog Post Monday'.

A slightly different post this week in the sense that it's not about an exciting find, but instead, it's about the extraordinary story of a groundbreaking 19th century physician named 'James Barry'.  Having no previous knowledge of Barry, I came across his story over the weekend while researching some pieces and I found it so incredible that I just had to write about it.  Some of you, I'm sure, will already be aware of James Barry, but for those of you who have never heard his story, this week's blog post is for you.

So, as always get that kettle on and prepare for the hairs to rise on the back of your neck as we take a look at the extraordinary story of Dr. 'James Barry'...


Image:  James Barry Physician


Dr. James Barry finished school at 22 and rose in the ranks as a British Army surgeon.  In Africa, Barry performed one of the first successful C-Sections where mother and child survived.  In Canada in 1857, Barry became Inspector General of Hospitals, and made improvements for the poor.  When Dr. Barry died after a remarkable career, the Army tried to suppress his records and all access to them was shut down for 100 years when it was revealed that he had been born 'Margaret Ann Bulkley'.


Image: the Marshalsea debtors' prison in Dublin 


Born in Cork in 1789, Barry was the second child born to Jeremiah and Mary Anne Bulkley, and was given the name Margaret Anne.  Unfortunately, financial mismanagement had left mother and child without the support of Jeremiah Bulkley, whose debts led to him spending time in the Marshalsea debtors' prison in Dublin (pictured above).  Consequently, Mother and Margaret (now 15) were left no option but to leave Ireland for London in 1804, where Mother had a brother—James Barry, a Royal Academician and painter (pictured below).


Image:  James Barry The Artist (1741-1806) 


Whilst Barry wanted nothing to do with them, Mother and Margaret got to know his friends, who were impressed by young Margaret, knowing her intelligence could take her far.  As such, they, along with Mother, hatched a plan for Margaret to pursue an education, and specifically, a career in medicine.  Women were banned from medical school and, therefore, it was planned that Margaret would adopt a male persona. 

It just so happened that James Barry (artist) died in 1806, leaving his sister and Margaret enough money to set them up, with his name now also up for grabs.  Three years later, Margaret Bulkley no longer existed.  Margaret now identified as James Barry and moved to Edinburgh to enrol in medical school in 1809, altering his age to match his young looks.


Image:  James Barry Physician


Barry succeeded in achieving a degree in medicine at the age of 22 and subsequently enlisted in the army as an assistant surgeon.  He began his military career on July 6, 1813, as a Hospital Assistant in the British Army, and was soon promoted to Assistant Staff Surgeon, equivalent to lieutenant. He then served in Cape Town, South Africa, for 10 years where he befriended the governor, Lord Charles Somerset (pictured below).


Image: Lord Charles Somerset, Governor of the Cape Colony 


Barry was known for his short fuse, with patients, superiors, army captains and even Florence Nightingale herself, on the receiving end of his anger.  However, his medical skills were unprecedented. He was a very skilled surgeon.  In fact, he was the first to perform a successful caesarean section where both mother and child survived.  He was also dedicated to social reform, speaking out against the sanitary conditions and mismanagement of barracks, prisons and asylums. During his 10-year stay, he arranged for a better water system for Cape Town.


Image:  Barry's appointment as Inspector General in charge of military Hospitals


Barry moved wherever his service was needed and he continued to climb the ranks as he traveled the world.  In 1857, he reached the rank of Inspector General in charge of military hospitals.  He continued his fight for proper sanitation, as well as for better food and proper medical care for prisoners and lepers.


Image:  Dr James Barry (left) - courtesy Wellcome Library, London 


Dr. James Barry died from dysentery on July 25, 1865.  His last wishes were to be buried in the clothes he died in, without his body being washed.  His wishes were ignored and consequently, when the nurse undressed the body to prepare it for burial, she discovered his lifelong secret.  The secret was made public after letters exchanged between the General Register Office and Barry’s doctor were leaked. In these letters, Major McKinnon, who signed the death certificate, said it was “none of my business” whether Dr. James Barry was male or female.


Image:  Dr James Barry's headstone at Kensal Green Cemetery


Dr. James Barry is buried in Kensal Green cemetery, in north-west London.

I think we can all agree that this is an amazing story.  One of bravery, strength and determination to succeed in life and to become the person they wanted to be.  Barry was way ahead of his time as both a doctor and as a humanitarian, and not only did he fight to live his best life, but he improved the lives of many others along the way.


Image:  James Barry Physician


Well, that's it for this week folks.  I hope you've enjoyed this little insight into the incredible life of Dr. James Barry.  As always, let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.



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