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16 January 2008

James Miranda Stuart Barry (1795 - 1865) Military Surgeon.

Of uncertain parentage James Barry, was raised in the milieu of James Barry, R.A., the Irish painter. He took his second name from General Francesco Miranda, a Venezuelan revolutionary and friend of the elder Barry. He was known to refer to Mary Anne Bulkeley, the sister of the elder Barry, as his aunt, although it possible that she was his mother, with Barry being in fact Margaret Bulkeley. Young Barry wrote a letter to General Miranda reminding him that no one in Edinburgh knew of Mrs Bulkeley's daughter. In 1809 James, at the age of 14 went to the University of Edinburgh Medical School to enroll as a student, and by this point he would have transitioned. He graduated in 1812 with a thesis on the hernia of the groin, which, as was normal at the time, he wrote and defended in Latin. The following year he passed the Army Medical Board exam and became the medical surgeon that he would remain for the rest of his life.

From 1817 to 1827 he was with the army in the Cape Colony, introducing several needed reforms, mainly in the areas of diet and hygiene, that seem obvious to present day readers, and was promoted to Colonial Medical Inspector. However not being the most political of men he also incurred the enmity of several of his colleagues. This pattern was to recur in his later appointments. He also performed the very noteworthy event of the first caesarian section in the colony that was survived by both mother and child. He served in Mauritius and Jamaica. In St Helena he cleaned up an epidemic of dysentery by attention to diet. He also caused a disturbance by insisting on female attendants for female patients. In Malta he dealt with an epidemic of cholera, with personal thanks from the Duke of Wellington. In Corfu he handled the hospitalization of men wounded in the Crimean war. From Corfu, on official leave he went to the Crimea where he encountered Florence Nightingale who was later to describe him as the 'most hardened creature I ever met'. After the war he was appointed to Canada as Inspector General of Hospitals, where he caught bronchitis and had to retire. This was in 1859 when he was 64. He died in 1865.

Upon his death a new drama started. A charwoman, Sophia Bishop, who was present at his death and who was employed to lay out his body made the claim that he was a woman, and that furthermore there were marks on his stomach to indicate that he had once given birth. She spoke from her experience as a mother of nine. On the other hand, Staff Surgeon major D.R. McKinnon, who had served with Barry in the West Indies, who had been treating him for some months for bronchitis, and who signed the death certificate, stated in a letter to the Registrar General that Barry was probably intersex, although he does not do say this with great certainty. Mrs Bishop's tale soon did the rounds of the London clubs. It was published within a fortnight of his death in Saunder's News Letter of Dublin, and shortly after that by the Manchester Guardian. However no London newspaper published the story. The Medical Times and Gazette of the same month published 'A Female Medical Combatant', the same account as had appeared in Saunder's, except that it merely specified 'A certain Doctor'. The very next issue carried a rebuttal from Dr Edward Bradford, Deputy Inspector General of Hospitals, who had known Barry since working with him in Jamaica in 1832. He considered that Barry was a male with arrested sexual development. He described Barry as 'quite destitute of all the characteristics of manhood' and described his voice as that of 'an aged woman'. However the opinion of Barry as a woman was launched. People remembered the scandal from 1824 in Cape Town when it had been suggested that Barry was sexually involved with the Governor, Lord Charles Somerset, and a placard had been posted on a popular bridge that referred to 'Dr Barry's little wife'. The assistant surgeon who had treated Barry for yellow fever in Trinidad now remembered that he had discovered that Barry looked like a woman. As late as 1935, the nephew of Dr Andrew Smith, who had been a colleague of Barry's in the Cape Colony, would claim that Barry as a young woman had fallen madly in love with Smith and when rebuffed had donned male attire and studied medicine.

Isobel Rae, in her much cited 1958 biography of Barry refers to him throughout as 'she' as do such recent writers as Carlotta Hacker and Julie Wheelwright. While it is true that to attend medical school, or any other university, in 1809 it was necessary to pass as male, it is also true that Barry maintained his chosen gender, if it was chosen, for the rest of his life even after retirement. His decision was to be male, and like other female-bodied persons who lived as men, he would be entitled to the male pronouns. On the other hand, if he were intersex, we should be able to pin it down more closely and specify what kind of hermaphroditism he had. The key text for this approach is a paper written in 1970 for the South African Medical Journal by Dr Percival Kirby, a medical historian. He considers two options. Firstly that Barry had Klinefelter's Syndrome which would give him breasts and small genitals, and maybe a lack of beard and a female voice. Secondly and more likely in his opinion is the possibility that Barry had Testicular-Feminization Syndrome, also known as Androgen-Insensitivity Syndrome, which is more consistent with being taken as a woman, and is more likely to result in no facial hair. Kirby considers that although his sex may have been ambiguous at birth, he would have been raised as a boy. This choice of diagnosis raises problems of its own. Most Androgen-Insensitive babies have a very definitely feminine vagina and are raised as girls, only realizing a problem when they fail to menstruate. They are females in all but chromosomes, and if Barry were Androgen-insensitive and raised as a girl, it would be extreme pedantry to say that she was not female. Hacker, citing Kirby as a reference, rejects this whole approach. The only reason, in her opinion, for considering the possibility of hermaphroditism is a male assumption that a mere women could not have achieved as much as Barry did.

  • 'A Female Medical Combatant' - Medical Times and Gazette: a Journal of Medical Science, Literature, Criticism and News - July-December 1865. Early statement that Barry was a woman.
  • A Strange Story. The Manchester Guardian. 21 August 1865.
  • E Rogers. 'A Female Member of the Army Medical Staff' - Lancet - July -December 1895. Early argument for Barry as intersex
  • Olga Racster and Jessica Grove. Dr. James Barry: her secret story. London: G. Howe, ltd, 1932. Reprinted as Journal of Dr James Barry. London: J. Lane. 1949. A fictionalization, in the first person.
  • Isobel Rae. The Strange Story of Dr James Barry, Army Surgeon, Inspector General of Hospitals, Discovered on Death to be a Woman. Longman, Green. 1958. Refers to Barry throughout as 'she'. The seminal argument for Barry as female.
  • P.R Kirby. 'Dr James Barry, Controversial South African Medical Figure: A Recent Evaluation of his Life and Sex' - South African Medical Journal - 25 April 1970, vol 44. The seminal argument that Barry was intersex.
  • Carlotta Hacker. The Indomitable Lady Doctors. Clarke, Irwin & Company Limited. 1974: chp 1. Presents Barry as the first woman doctor in Canada, and rejects the intersex theory as male prejudice that a woman could not have achieved so much.
  • June Rose. The Perfect Gentleman: The Remarkable Life of Dr. James Miranda Barry, the Woman Who Served as an Officer in the British Army from 1813 to 1859. Hutchinson 160pp,1977
  • Don Akenson. At Face Value: the Life and Times of Eliza McCormack/John White. McGill-Queen's University Press. 1990: 238-9. Summarizes the literature and opts for the intersex theory.
  • Anne & Ivan Kronenfeld. The Secret Life Of Dr. James Miranda Barry. Write Words, Inc. 274pp, 2000. Another fictionalization.
  • Patricia Duncker. James Miranda Barry. London Serpent’s Tail, New York: Ecco Press. 375 pp. 1999. London Picador (pb) 2000. A novelization that assumes that he was a woman.
  • Rachel Holmes. Scanty Particulars: The Scandalous Life and Astonishing Secret of James Barry, Queen Victoria's Most Eminent Military Doctor. Random House 384 pp, 2003. Asserts that Barry was intersex, based on a study of his writings and medical interests.
  • Savona-Ventura. Dr. James Barry: an enigmatic Army Medical Doctor.
  • “James Barry (surgeon)”. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


  1. Adrian Ravensoul has left a new comment on your post "Lazlo Pearlman (1972 - ) actor.":

    As a transman who has researched James Barry's life extensively, I am thoroughly insulted that Hollywood has decided to cash in on the rumored - not to mention highly illogical and unproven - affair with Cape Town's Lord Somerset, a man old enough to have been Doctor Barry's father who viewed the bright little Irishman as just that - a member of his family and a son, if not a sycophant eccentric oddity. In fact, among contemporaries he was known to have had a marked disinterest in women despite the occasional flirt to evade problems.

    For a gay transman such as Barry who was known for his high moral standards, to have had an affair with anyone would have not only gone against his would have gone against his rational, logical personality, completely out of character. He knew very well the risks of venereal diseases, considering it was one of his main ailments found among soldiers he tended to.

    Would a man who had worked so hard to attain his rank in the medical field who must have suffered through the added stresses of everyday ‘passing’ and the gnawing fear of being found out risk everything for a simple fling? From what research I have done on the good doctor, that would be entirely out of character as well as foolish to the point of being utterly ridiculous.

    As to the rumored pregnancy, I am further astonished that not one author has ever considered the very likely possibility that the doctor was raped. Being a man of small stature and frail, it would have been easy for a larger man (or men) to overpower him. He would have never been able to have the rapist prosecuted, due to being outed, and it is a fact that James disappeared for several months between 1820 to 1821, enough time to give birth to the child and secure it’s care, anonymously of course.

    James Barry was known to be a sincerely devout Roman Catholic (this was officially recorded by the British Military), therefore he would have carried the child to term and given it over to the local church, unless the child were stillborn, which would have been another added stress on top of everything else.

    Another point of interest, after 1821 James’ quarrelsome nature reached an all-time high. Any remarks made about deficiencies in his masculinity (real or imagined) were met with raving tirades, fisticuffs and at least one challenge to a duel. Barry had his dogs trained to sleep in the bed next to him and always kept bolts on his doors and windows as well as displaying a marked increase in paranoia.

    These would be understandable reactions for a man suffering from the Post-Traumatic Stress Disordered triggered by rape, if one were to agree with my above theories. He would be desperate to never appear in a vulnerable state again at all costs.

  2. Imagine my chagrin that the official movie PDF gives my article as a reference.

    The film is described as 'a love story' and Barry as a 'woman'.

    Fortunately the film seems to have collapsed financially. Bad luck to the crew who are left being owed wages, but the plot of the film was completely wrong. Natascha McElhone is completely wrong to play Barry - well she would be if the film at all attempted to tell his real life.

    Of course Nicole Kidman in The Danish Girl promises to be equally bad. That is fortunately stuck in pre-production, and hopefully will not get out.

    Why are women being cast as both trans men and trans women?

  3. it might have been out of character as one would say..... but people do get lonely, and sometimes lonliness makes you do things you wouldn't necessary do. think on that.

    That being said, you can't say he was Trans gay/trans. No one will ever know for sure. and no one will know JMB's sex unless they dig JMB up and do an autopsy... but don't just assume that Barry was Trans. That's just catering to ones own ideals. JMB deserves more respect than that...and it shouldn't matter.

    Even if the movie is bad (and I have already read the script, and it's BAD) I would be glad to see it, and would be glad to see the attention paid to Barry...hopefully to fuel a new investigation into the whole matter.

  4. The point is that the film, and most of the biographies, especially those written by women, naively assume that Barry was a woman, without even considering that he was a trans man or intersex.

  5. I am down with those considerations. And I agree with what you're saying. I just think that with either being trans or intersex, or even female, that comments that Barry was one thing or the other as a cemented ideal is irritating, and what REALLY happened, etc... But I guess it is a moot point since everyone has their own opinion and romantic idea of what Barry really was and what happened with his life.

    And I agree with the comment about the books that have come out only pointing to Barry being female. I have read only two, and the newest biography by Holmes...which at first I was pissed at because I had the idea that Barry was a woman, but I have re-read it since I first read it several years ago and I also like that idea. I just don't really know,..and yes, it is a very curious thing to want to know for sure :) but we might never know.

    The movie script is terrible, as I have already said... basically making Barry out to be a woman that would do anything for "her man" and acting like a school girl with a crush blah blah. Ugh. But also, like I said, it would be interesting to see if any new interest would be sparked by the film.

    1. People will pour their own particular agendas into an amazing and unique situation like Dr Barry's. It is possible she had children in her life.

      Without the witness of Sophia Bishop the amazing facts of this existence may never have come to light.

      It is understandable that Dr Barry could be seen as a gay role model. I have no argument with people who seek to do that. From what I do know it is my belief that Barry's life and career was a successful attempt by a women to have an illustrious career.

      My own interest and agenda is that Dr Barry has possibly two or three children. I am researching the possibility of one at least. Because of Barry's standing it is unlikely there will have been much of a paper trail.

      As I write I can see flaws and gaps in my theory...

      mais, c'est la vie... that's history...

    2. Given your obsessive - to the point of rudeness - insistence on referring to Barry as 'she' despite his lifelong adherence to a male expression, I am confident that you will never understand him. To understand someone you need to take him on his own terms.

      If it was the case that the young Barry suffered rape and pregnancy, it apparently only re-inforced his already distaste for being female.

      "gay role model"??? Who has suggested Barry as a gay man? He was apparently asexual, if only because of the fear of being outed as female-bodied.

    3. I apologise for that semblance of rudeness. My hypothesis is based on the facts that Dr Barry was born inside the Georgian period with strong republican base at that time. The name Miranda attests to this. The different streams and theories arising from this are moot, including mine...

      based on what i know Dr barry masqueraded as a man in order to practise as a doctor.

      To honour the person, any assertions must be evidence based. I do not think the movie will add much, if anything, to our understanding...

    4. You do not honour Dr Barry by using words like 'masqueraded'. Nor is your position evidence based when you deny his manhood. What other than rudeness would bring you to this particular site to insist as you do on reactionary essentialism?

  6. The more parsimonious view, IMO, is that while Barry certainly would have been more employable if viewed by society as a man, he would not have done it had there not been internal motivations. While I consider it inappropriate to apply the term transsexual to someone whose motivations we can't know, the facts of Barry's life and actions scream male identification.

    A parallel here is the life of the late jazz musician Billy Tipton. "She did it for her music," the headlines screamed-- but the facts of Tipton's life make it perfectly clear he was male-identified. Considering this, it's just disrespectful to refer to Barry with female pronouns.

    As for children, contemporary transitioned transmen are having children these days-- and many other transmen had them before coming to terms with their identities. If Barry had children, it speaks to his desire to be a parent, not to his gender identification.


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