James Barry: Medic duped establishment into thinking she was a man for decades

WHEN housemaid Sophia Bishop was asked to lay out the body of a newly deceased doctor on July 25, 1865, she would have been expecting a mundane, if slightly grim task. But as she undressed the dead medic, she discovered the celebrated physician had a less than run-of-the-mill secret.

Dr James Barry had been living in the household in London's Cavendish Square where Sophia served following his return, due to ill health, from Canada two years earlier. The Edinburgh University graduate's decline marked the end of a long and distinguished career for the eccentric, slightly-built medic, culminating in the rank of Senior Inspector General.

Yet Dr Barry's lasting fame would not be for his groundbreaking medical achievements. As Sophia set to her task, she discovered to her astonishment that Dr Barry was, as she is said to have put it, "a perfect female".

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Bishop had uncovered in a moment's work a lifelong deception which began in Barry's teens when he disguised his true identity in order to gain entry to Edinburgh University's medical department – decades before Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became Britain's first, officially-recognised female doctor.

It was not the first time scandal had surrounded the doctor. On a posting to South Africa in 1824, a sign posted on a wall accused him of having a homosexual affair with the colony's Governor, Lord Somerset. Few people can have guessed the truth. If there was an affair, it was clearly not homosexual.

Barry was certainly close to Somerset, describing him on one occasion as "my more than father, my almost only friend". Sophia Bishop is also reported to have discovered stretchmarks on Barry's body and to have been convinced the doctor had borne a child – if so, Somerset seems a likely candidate for father.

Perhaps aware of the gravity of the scandal she had uncovered, Sophia Bishop is reported to have kept her discovery secret until after the doctor's funeral. With the body interred, there was no way to verify her claim, and speculation began.

Some said Dr Barry was a hermaphrodite, others that the maid was simply courting scandal. But for those who had known Barry, there was a ring of truth to the tale – the smooth chin, the small frame, the squeaky voice. It seemed possible that Sophia Bishop's claims were not entirely fanciful, and Barry had successfully duped both Edinburgh University and the British Army for decades.

After so much speculation about Dr Barry's true identity, the most convincing explanation came last year from Dr Michael du Preez in New Scientist magazine.

He suggests that Barry began life in Cork in 1789 as Margaret Bulkley, the niece of artist James Barry. She and her mother, Mary Ann, found themselves destitute after Margaret's father Jeremy was jailed for debt, and the two set sail for London around 1804.

There they enlisted the help of two of James Barry's influential friends, Dr Edward Fryer and the Venezuelan revolutionary, General Francisco Miranda. The group evolved an ambitious plan for Margaret which would enable her to fulfil her academic potential, and support herself and her mother.

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Fryer tutored her and Miranda threw open his extensive library for Margaret's studies, proposing that, if she concealed her identity for the duration of her medical training, Margaret could practice as a woman in Venezuela, after he had overseen revolution in the country.

Du Preez notes: "In the early 19th century only men were admitted to the medical schools in Britain, and discovery of the sex of the young medical student would have ruined any chance of success. The plan for Margaret's education had now assumed the dimension of a conspiracy."

In late November, 1809, mother and daughter set sail from Wapping to Leith, and before boarding, Margaret took on her new identity. To avoid suspicion on their arrival, she posed from the very beginning of the voyage as Mrs Bulkley's nephew, James Barry, and wrote later to the family's solicitor, Daniel Reardon: "...it was very usefull (sic] for Mrs. Bulkley (my aunt) to have a Gentleman to take care of her on Board Ship and to have one in a strange country".

Barry was swiftly matriculated in Edinburgh and began to study anatomy, chemistry and natural philosophy under his new identity.

Following research into the Bulkley family archives, du Preez commissioned forensic handwriting analysis, which he says proves beyond doubt that letters written by Margaret and James before and after the change were of the same hand. What's more, in December 1809, the medical student wrote to Reardon, signing the letter with his new name. The meticulous solicitor, however, recorded the sender of the letter on its envelope – "Miss Bulkley".

Having evidently carried out his deception with enough panache that no-one had suspected his true identity, James Barry was one of 57 students to graduate from Edinburgh's medical school in 1812.

However, the plan for him to depart for Venezuela and become Margaret once more had run into trouble. Just as Barry was taking his final exams, General Miranda was betrayed by Simon Bolivar and imprisoned by the Spanish.

Forced to reconsider his limited options, Barry applied for the British Army and was recruited into the medical service as a hospital assistant on July 5, 1813 – it is not known how he avoided the mandatory physical examination, but it has been speculated that family connections may have helped him to submit private letters vouching for his good health.

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He worked first in Plymouth and in 1815 was promoted to be assistant staff surgeon. He was subsequently posted to the Cape of Good Hope.

It was in the Cape that many of the Doctor's most notorious adventures and achievements occurred. He was the first British doctor to carry out a Caesarian in which both mother and baby survived. He recognised the dangers posed by disease spreading through dirty and overcrowded field hospitals, and campaigned to improve conditions.

Barry also led a colourful personal life, quite apart from the alleged affair with Lord Somerset. He is reported to have fought a duel in Cape Town, and to have been sent home under arrest on numerous occasions after run-ins with his Army superiors.

There were also subtle clues as to his hidden identity. In 1819, Lord Albermarle remarked that the doctor showed "a certain effeminacy in his manner". Barry is reported to have worn three-inch soles on his shoes, and shoulder pads in his coat to increase his build.

After leaving South Africa, Barry continued to be posted around the world with the Army, until ill-health forced his retirement.

Barry must have known that the secret of a lifetime would be uncovered after his death, but, despite the wagging tongues, death was kind to the memory of the honourable doctor. He was buried in Kensal Rise cemetery in London, his gravestone bearing "his" name and rank for posterity.

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