Margaret Bulkley aka Dr James Barry - Pioneering Surgeon Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Margaret Bulkley aka Dr James Barry - Pioneering Surgeon

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Margaret Bulkley was born in Ireland in about 1790 and went on to become Dr James Barry, a surgeon who did pioneering work in relation to childbirth and hospital sanitation.

It is not known what the doctor's gender identity actually was, whether a man with a female body, or a woman taking on the role of a man in order to obtain a good education and establish a lucrative career, or something else. In this Entry, we will use the pronouns she/her to refer to Margaret Bulkley and he/him/his to refer to James Barry - he was keen for his previous identity to be kept hidden, as he had left instructions that his body should not be examined or uncovered when he died. His past was revealed after his death, though, as the servant of the house where he lodged discovered his female anatomy while she was preparing his body for burial, and informed one of his colleagues.

Birth of James Barry

Margaret Ann Bulkley was born into a fairly wealthy family in Cork, Ireland - her father Jeremiah was a grocer who almost certainly profited from serving ships on the River Lee. However, the family then spent a considerable amount of money on her brother John, who studied law and then had to do an apprenticeship before getting married and buying a farmhouse at large expense. As a result, Jeremiah was sent to debtor's prison in about 1803. Another change to the family's fortunes occurred when Margaret's uncle died in 1806. Her mother Mary Anne's brother, James Barry was an artist in London - he was not very successful but he lived frugally so Mary Anne and Margaret inherited £2,400 from him and they moved to the city together.

In London, three of Mary Anne's brother's friends also decided to help - there was a solicitor, who helped Mary Anne manage the money she had inherited, a military man with an extensive library that Margaret enjoyed visiting, and a doctor who tutored Margaret and gave her a broader education than she would otherwise have received because she was a girl.

In 1809, it was decided by the friends that Margaret should go to Edinburgh University to study medicine, as the Earl of Buchan, another of the artist James Barry's friends was there. However, women were not allowed to study at the University, so Margaret took the name James Barry like her uncle and was dressed up as a man. Young James then travelled to Edinburgh from London by boat with Mary Anne as his aunt.


The Earl of Buchan, unaware of most of what had been decided in London, ensured that the young James Barry was welcomed into the University. James became one of the best students at the University, often working from 7am to 2am and studying a wide range of subjects from Anatomy to Surgery via Chemistry, Midwifery and Greek. He even attended Botany courses during the summer when most other medical students had gone home.

In 1812, he took his final examination. The process was all conducted in Latin - he first had to confirm that he had completed enough courses by presenting his certificates, then he had a discussion with a tutor to confirm that he was ready to take the steps towards graduation. Next he published his thesis (a report, that he had written in 1811, about the condition of Femoral Hernia) and submitted it to his examiners. During the month of waiting for the examiners' verdict, he undertook a formal test, taking part in an oral discussion before completing a written paper. Finally he had to defend his thesis in a public viva voce, and he graduated on the same day.

Doctor and Surgeon

Dr James Barry then returned to London and completed further study at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital before joining the Royal College of Surgeons as a Regimental Assistant and enlisting in the British Army.

He served in a variety of places, including India, Mauritius, Malta and Canada, and was eventually promoted to the role of Inspector General of Hospitals in spite of various incidents of hot-temperedness, fighting a duel, and taking absence without leave on a few occasions1. In about 1860, he fell ill and was retired from the army, being sent back to London from Canada. He lived on an army pension of half his working salary until he died of a disease, perhaps dysentery or cholera, on 26 July, 1865.

One of his most notable achievements took place in the Cape of Good Hope, as he performed one of the first successful Caesarean Section operations in 1826, saving both the child and the mother. The baby was named James Barry Munnik Herzog in honour of the doctor, and he grew up to be Prime Minister of South Africa. Dr Barry also served in the Crimea, and worked to improve hospital conditions there, focusing on hygiene, water quality and the patients' diet in order to save lives. He spent some time in Florence Nightingale's hospital, investigating the high death rate there, which meant that she later said of him:

After she was dead I was told she was a woman. I should say she was the most hardened creature I ever met throughout the army.


Since Dr Barry's death, there has been much speculation about him and his life. Sophia Bishop, the servant who found his body, thought that he had had a baby at some time in the past, because there were stretchmarks on his stomach. There were also rumours of him becoming too close to the Governor of the Cape of Good Hope2, so there was a bit of a scandal and an official investigation, but no charges were brought against Dr Barry and the Governor was sent back to England.

Modern speculation has centred around whether Dr Barry would have identified as transgender if the term had been available to him at the time, or whether he was a woman taking advantage of masculinity in a male-dominated world.

There is some evidence to suggest that a woman who was not transgender, so identified with the prevailing definition of what a woman was and was comfortable with having a female body, would not have been able to live as a man for so many years without ill effect. For example, the John/Joan case from the 1970s, where a boy was brought up as a girl following damage to his male anatomy, demonstrated that he knew he was a boy all along as he chose to become a boy again at the age of 14, even though it involved him undergoing several operations. Also, in the 2006 book Self-Made Man, author Norah Vincent was glad to return to being a masculine woman after spending just a year living as a man, as it affected her mental health badly. And of course, many transgender people who are in circumstances where they are unable to be themselves experience distress and discomfort every day.

In relation to Dr James Barry, his episodes of aggression and the unexplained absences from duty may have been efforts to prove himself to be a real man, or may have been symptoms of the strain of him pretending to be a man when he wasn't. The only way to know how he really felt about his life was if he had ever said so, but no such evidence appears to exist.


In spite of the speculation surrounding his life, Dr Barry's work did provide potentially useful evidence that people born with a female body had the ability to study at university level, to become a doctor, and even serve in the military. In 2009, a film about his life was proposed, starring Natascha McElhone, but it was never completed because of financial problems. However, the modern world in which women have much more equality of opportunity, and transgender people have much more recognition and acceptance, is still influenced in some small way by Dr James Barry's story.

1Once his excuse for going back to England without telling anyone was allegedly that he wanted to get a decent haircut.2Which could have been a situation similar to the plot of the film Victor Victoria.

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