Maggie Fergusson

Doctor who?

Michael du Preez tells the curious story of the dedicated British army surgeon who had to conceal her gender for over 50 years in order to pursue her vocation

On 25 July 1865, during a heatwave, Dr James Barry died of dysentery in his London lodgings. A charwoman came in to ‘lay out’ the body. She had known the deceased gentleman: a strange-looking fellow, about five feet tall, slight and stooped and with a large nose and dyed red hair. But nothing had prepared her for what she found when she folded back the bedclothes. Barry’s whole body — ‘the genitals, the deflated breast and the hairless face’ — was unmistakably female. And as if that wasn’t shock enough, the charwoman’s eye was drawn to pronounced striations in the skin of the belly. As a mother of nine, she recognised them immediately as the marks of childbearing.

James Barry was born Margaret Anne Bulkley in about 1789 in Cork, where her father, Jeremiah, made his living as a grocer. Destined either for marriage or to be a governess, she was given minimal education. Then, while she was still a teenager, it seems that she was raped — possibly by a ne’er-do-well uncle — and fell pregnant. Jeremiah and his wife, Mary Ann, passed off the child, Juliana, as their own, but the grocery business was increasingly precarious, and when Margaret was about 17 she and her mother moved to London. Our last sighting of Jeremiah is on a convict ship bound for New South Wales — and what became of poor Juliana history doesn’t relate.

In London, Mary Ann had a brother, James Barry, a Royal Academician and painter of some note. A true eccentric, he lived in squalor, but when he died in 1806 he left his sister and niece enough money to set themselves up. He had also introduced them to his circle of friends, including the Venezuelan exile General Francisco de Miranda and David Steuart Erskine, the Earl of Buchan.

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