Dr. James Barry and the specter of trans and queer history.


Dr. James Barry, circa 1813 by an unknown artist. 

Note from the author: This article was originally written in 2015 and published on my blog under my historical fiction penname. I did this because given the piece’s informal tone I felt that would be a better fit there. Since then this topic and my interpretation have received a great deal of interest and it does fit within the scope of my research interest, therefore I am also cross-posting it here.


Barry was probably born 1789-ish, to either Mary-Ann Bulkley or her sister Margaret. Both were sisters of the successful Irish painter James Barry. The Bulkley part of the family struggled for money so there is some suggestion that James Barry (the painter) took some members of that family into his household in London for a least a short period of time. Some people have also suggested that David Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan or General Francisco Miranda provided for the family after Barry’s death, there is some evidence of this but it is scanty at best.

The first substantive evidence of any kind of James is two letters he writes himself. Both of the letters he wrote to his family’s solicitor in 1809. One announces that he was sailing to Edinburgh with his aunt who “wished to have a Gentleman to take care of her on Board Ship and to have one in a strange country” and the other states that he’d enrolled University of Edinburgh Medical School. Both are signed James Barry.

Once in Edinburgh James began his studies at University of Edinburgh Medical School, where his professors found him to be a very gifted student. He qualified for an MD in 1812 and moved to London where he studied at United Hospitals of Guy’s and St Thomas’ and successfully passed the examination for the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1813. He then joined the army and was commissioned as a Hospital Assistant, posted in Chelsea and then the Royal Military Hospital in Plymouth, where he was promoted to Assistant Staff Surgeon. He was then briefly stationed in India before arriving in Cape Town South Africa in 1816 or 1817.

In Cape Town things got interesting. Within a couple weeks of getting there, Barry became Medical Inspector for the colony, even though he was only in his very early twenties. He was very adamant that clean water and a good diet were connected to good health. One of his first acts as Medical Inspector was to figure out a better system for providing cleaner water to Cape Town, especially the poorer areas. He was also a strong believer in making available good medical care, fresh food and clean water to everyone including the common soldiers, the poor, mentally ill, non-white people, prisoners, lepers, and basically everyone. He was incredibly quick to denounce anyone he felt was taking advantage of or treating cruelly anyone from the aforementioned groups, which made him as many friends as you can imagine it did. He also became known, and hated, for making every medical professional, working publicly or privately to licensed and regulated. He also licensed and regulated pharmacies and other drug sales. This was in an attempt to cut back on poorly manufactured, and often deadly, drugs that were being made and sold by unlicensed and often untrained pharmacists.

On the personality front, Barry tended towards being cold, rude, opinionated and downright insubordinate. He was routinely disciplined for refusing to follow orders, and many other doctors found him impossible to work with.

As a young man he was considered to be a dandy, people remarked on his love of fine clothes and wigs especially in Cape Town. He owned and could use both a rapier and cavalry saber. He challenged people to duels over slights to his professionalism and for calling him short, which he hated. He also did fight at least one pistol duel, while at Cape Town.

Even people who hated him, and there were a lot of them, admitted he was very good at his job, and that fact tended to keep him from getting into any really serious trouble. His emphasis on cleanliness, clean water, and well-regulated hospitals did have noticeable impacts especially when it came to preventing outbreaks of diseases like cholera. He was also not afraid of performing cutting-edge medical procedures and while at Cape Town presided over the first Caesarian section where both mother and child survived within the colonies.


Lord Charles Somerset by an unknown artist, date unknown.

The end of his time as Medical Inspector at Cape Town revolved around the accusation that he had an ‘unnatural and immoral’ affair with the Governor of Cape Town, Lord Charles Somerset. The affair was a great scandal, during which the anonymously written placards would show up in various public places calling Somerset “Dr. Barry’s wife” among other things.

It is undeniable that while Barry was at Cape Town he and Somerset where close. Even people who weren’t accusing them of sleeping together admitted they had an unusually close relationship. There are several stories about Somerset being in debt to Barry for saving Somerset’s life or the life of ones of his daughters. There is no evidence of this though, Somerset seemed to genuinely like Barry, to find him intelligent and amusing. Somerset referred to Barry early on as a “genius at medicine and absurd in everything else.” Yet the two often lived together, Somerset often took Barry with him on hunting trips, or to look at hippos or elephants. He introduced Barry to many of the important white political figures in South Africa. He protected Barry from being more severally punished when his tendency to be an unbelievable asshole towards people in power got him in trouble. He monetarily and politically also supported a lot of Barry’s reforms.

Later after the scandal, when the two of them had parted ways Somerset would recall Barry as having been “the most skilful of physicians and most wayward of men.”

The affair caused Somerset resign his post as Governor and to return to England. Although the accusations were eventually dropped, Barry left Cape Town a year after Somerset did.

After Cape Town, for the next three to four years Barry served in Mauritius, Trinidad, and Tobago, Saint Helena, Malta, Corfu, the Crimea, Jamaica, and Canada.

By that time he had reached the rank of Inspector General, H.M. Army Hospitals, but he managed to piss off various politicians and people in the army so thoroughly he got arrested, sent back to England and demoted to Staff Surgeon.

He was posted next in the West Indies in 1838 where he made such an impact in the medical condition of the troops stationed there not to mention the smooth running of the medical personnel that he was promoted back up to Principal Medical Officer. He was then posted in Malta, Corfu and Canada again having attained the ranks of Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals and then Inspector-General of Hospitals. This second time, especially in Canada Barry fought particularly hard for the proper care, food and clean water for soldiers and their families along with prisoners. He founded a leper colony and then worked to see its occupants had correct care. He also pushed through his ideas on the necessity of sanitation in hospitals and recruited women nurses to work in women’s hospital wards. Where he could be very abrasive with his colleagues he was known to have a gentle respectful way with patients and is credited with making substantial changes that bettered the condition of lower ranked soldiers and their families especially Canada.

He served in the Crimean War where he met Florence Nightingale. The two had a very public altercation although over what is not clear. Nightingale called him a “brute” and a “blackguard” in a letter to Lady Verney because of it. Probably because Barry reprimanded her in front of his soldiers and staff, which she felt was ungentlemanly of him.

He retired in 1864 and returned to England, where he lived with his manservant, John (surname unknown) and several dogs. He died in 1865, being in his sixties or possibly seventies at the time. His legacy is as a scholar, pioneering surgeon, reforming medical administer and probably, for all his faults, a gentleman.


Dr. James Barry by unknown artist possibly commissioned while he was in South Africa

This is where historians trip over themselves a little bit when it comes to Dr. James Barry. Because the issues with Barry is that he was probably assigned female at birth. It’s a little bit hard to tell because we don’t have any proof of his birth at all. We have one person who claims to have seen his body undressed and said he “had the body of a woman” but every writing we have from him he very clearly identifies himself as male. He comes into the historical record with a fully formed identity, which remains consistent through the rest of his life. He signs his name (Dr.) James Barry in every document we have from him. He refers to himself as a “gentleman” in the very first letter and refers to himself with only male pronouns. He also doesn’t seem to be a person who hid much, who was particularly afraid of the public eye or even of scandal. This was a person who seemed to have lived as he was: a rude, opinionated, and brash reformer and very talented surgeon.

Yet he’s listed on zero lists of GLBT historical figures, he’s on few to none trans historical figures lists, he’s not included in any timelines or articles for GLBT or trans specific history. The closest to his inclusion in GLBT history that I’ve been able to find are three blog posts the first of which asks “do we count him in trans history? Women’s history? Both?” The second actually brings up the possibility  of him being trans but then states “There’s no proof, of course – we have no idea how Barry saw his own gender.”  Even A Gender Variance Who’s Who, which identifies itself as “the most comprehensive site devoted to trans history” doesn’t even bring up the idea that Barry was trans. Instead, they consider several theories put forth in the 1970s that suggest Barry was intersex. Which has nothing to do with anything as far as I’m concerned since intersex does not equal gender identity, either assigned or lived. But at the end of the article Gender Variance reject the theories that Barry was intersex in favor of the one where Barry was a cisgender woman disguised as a man because in order to escape the evils of misogyny, and probably forced into it by her mother and scheming radicals because … there is no actual argument for this given for why this is better/more likely.

Mainstream historians at least seem to have made up their minds. Barry is almost exclusively listed among “women doctors”, and “lady doctors.” and hailed as the “first female surgeon in Britain.” I’ve found him counted in “women’s history of medicine,” and “women in the British army.” As A.K. Kubba and M. Young point out in their article about Barry (2001) out of 200 works on Barry the vast majority use female pronouns when talking about him.

In general mainstream, history has followed two specific narratives when dealing with Barry since his death in 1865. The first narrative is that Barry fell in love with a young medical student and disguised himself as a man in order to be with this dude. When the man joining the army Barry joined the army too and so on. Usually, the evidence held up for this particular interpretation was only a woman would have been sympathetic to the plight of the poor, mentally ill, and imprisoned. Barry’s gentle bedside manner is often brought up, the sympathetic way he treated his patients proof of his womanhood. The fact that he was, evidently, a confrontational asshole 98% of the rest of the time seems to have been conveniently forgotten. Also evidently cutting-edge medical procedures, sweeping military medical reform, several stints in prison, at least one duel, fighting in at least two wars and having gay sex with married men are just the wacky hijinks you get up to you when you follow your one true love into the army.  Yet this is the leading theory on Barry straight up through part of the 20th century.

At some point, it gets replaced by the second theory, which is still the prevailing one. Barry, born Margaret (A lot of work has gone into proving this was his birth name but the historical record is, in fact, inconclusive) was forced to disguise himself as male after his mother realized he had no prospects as a woman. She partnered with several social and politically radical people Barry (the painter) knew and came up with a plan for Barry to be made into a man in order to better his place in the world. They got him into medical school and then the army because … reasons. Young Barry couldn’t resist this plan under the watchful eye of his mother and her friends and by the time he got to South Africa, he had too much to lose so maintained the fiction for the rest of his life. In this narrative, Barry is the victim both of radical scheming but also societal misogyny. He or “she” was forced to live a lie and must be reclaimed by women’s history so that we can all know “her true womanhood” that society robbed her of. If this narrative sounds familiar it’s because it also functions as a catch-all narrative for anyone who was probably assigned female at birth but was in some way at some point in their lives gender variant.

If it sounds like I don’t like this narrative, it’s because I don’t. This is one of the primary ways women’s history stands in opposition to GLBT, especially trans history. Not only does it erase the many reasons people choose to identify with aspects of a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth, it also tends to rob historical people of their agency in talking about and identifying their own gender. It has thankfully, lost some ground to GLBT history over the past ten years. Yet this is still the prevailing narrative when it comes to Dr. James Barry.

The thing that gets me about this in regards to Barry is that there is zero evidence to support the idea that he was forced into anything, or that he identified as a woman at any point. One of the really interesting things to me is that none of the people writing about Barry, professional or amateur historians like, justify using female pronouns. This is despite the fact that no one has ever come across a document of any kind where Barry refers to himself with female pronouns. No one makes any justification for referring to Barry as a “lady surgeon” although it flies directly in the face of how Barry wrote about himself. Barry very explicitly referred to himself as a “gentleman” and not, in fact never, as a “lady.” My question why doesn’t his words and the way he talked about himself count?

An exception to the mainstream approach is Rachel Holmes who wrote Scanty Particulars a work of popular history about Barry. She, to her credit, adheres to male pronouns and also focuses heavily on his medical career, rather than speculating about his gender. In her epilogue, she notes in, what to me is heartbreak, bewilderment that the more she researched Barry the more she found someone who was not particularly hiding, who was not oppressed or unhappy. In passing as a man, using male pronouns and a male name Barry seemed to be living the life he wanted for himself not hiding his “true identity” or “nature” at all. Yet even Holmes gives into the narrative of Barry being forced into his role through the misogyny of the era and speculates that he might have been interesex despite having no evidence because  … why not I guess.

Also worth noting is Alison Moulds placement of Barry in her 2013 history of “groundbreaking women” for the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association (UK and Ireland.) Moulds admits the choice might be a problem for some, she states she chooses to include Barry because “I believe that situating Barry in this series is worthwhile, for it serves to both bring her story to a wider audience and generate debates about sex and gender.” The term “trans” is not used anywhere in the article though and ultimately Moulds also falls back on using female pronouns through the entirety of her piece.

The thing I come back to over and over again is why are we dismissing the idea that Barry was trans? Seriously, what is the argument that he wasn’t? What does anyone have to lose by claiming him as trans? How is that more a poor representation of historical truth than calling him a “lady” is?

I do understand the reluctance to consider him trans or queer on the part of the mainstream. I will the first to admit that mainstream history tends to be regressive where GLBT history is concerned. What I don’t get though is the reluctance on the part of GLBT historians to claim Barry as our own.

Yes, you can make the argument trans is a 20th-century construction that does not extend back into the 19th century, which is true. That being said a person who is assigned one gender at birth, but then lives for the vast majority of their life identifying as another, often including dressing as that gender, using the pronouns associated with that gender, referring to themselves as that gender, preferring the gendered language associated with that gender, choosing a name inline with that gender etc. Describes both our understanding of what it means to be binary transgender and the life Dr. James Barry.

What we do know about Barry is this, that he lived for over fifty years as a man, identifying exclusively as male, talking about himself exclusively as male, used exclusively male pronouns, and was extremely good at what he did, had a wide circle of intellectual friends, and an even wider circle of intellectual enemies his entire life.

Also, why don’t we consider him queer? I’ve looked pretty much everywhere for evidence that the affair between Somerset and Barry didn’t take place. There is the fact that the accusation comes as a pretty obvious political place against Somerset. I don’t know that, for me, the political element is enough to give up on a queer reading completely. I would like to see that angle explored especially as part of a large understanding of Barry being placed in the context of trans history.

Not only do I think it makes no sense for us to not consider Barry trans but I think it is almost necessary for us to place him within the context of trans history.  I worry about how our refusal to see Barry as trans plays into GLBT histories problem when it comes to the burden of proof. If fifty years living as a gender other than the one you were assigned at birth isn’t enough to qualify a historical figure as trans than what does?  If the bar for who gets to be included is trans history is set above what even Barry’s illustrious career and life can achieve what does that say about us as historians? Where does that leave us? What does a trans past, or for that matter a queer past look like?

I see queer and trans historians setting themselves up in this intellectual trap a lot. We don’t know if these people actually felt romantic love for each other so we don’t really know if they were queer. We don’t know if or how or when they’re genital touched so we don’t really know if they were queer. We don’t know what they felt about their gender on a personal intimate level so we don’t know if they were really trans.

Over and over again I hear the caution of my queer and trans historian peers to resist seeing ourselves in history because it will lead to selective reading or imposing our modern narratives around gender and sexuality. I sympathized with all of this, but I do wonder who does it hurt when we turn our back completely on the past?

The fact of the matter is 9.5 times out of 10 we will never know what people were thinking or how they felt down in deep in their hearts about anything let alone gender and sexuality. Times where we do know this, where people left written records of this is the vast, vast exception, it cannot be the rule. We need to let that go, then listen and look to what is left. Be honest and rigorous, give historical figures agency, and also realize what we do as queer and trans historians have a direct impact on who we are as a community.

I think also something those of us who are historians and writers should keep in mind is that history for those of us who are trans and queer is not something we can take for granted. History is important, having a history is powerful. Seeing ourselves in history, reaffirming who we are by looking behind us isn’t by definition unprofessional. It’s human, in some case it’s necessary and I think it can make us better historians actually.

I also want people to know James Barry’s story. Because it’s a good story, it’s colorful, entertaining, and intellectually interesting and I want this to be a story people learn through a trans and queer lens. I don’t think after years of research that there is anything historically inaccurate about that approach.

As for what Barry thought of his own gender, I think that actually pretty simple. A lot simpler than most of the historians over the last hundred and fifty years since his death seem to think. In fact, listening to him, and his own words about himself is the best queer and trans reading we have.

To that end, I will end the article with a quote. In the dedication to his medical thesis, James Barry wrote: “Do not consider whether what I say is a young man speaking, but whether my discussion with you is that of a man of understanding.”

I’m not sure it needs to be any more complicated than that. James Barry wanted to be seen as a man of understanding and I say we give it to him.


Notes 1: I have been fascinated by Dr. James Barry for about two years. I stumbled across him originally while doing research into medical reform and cutting-edge medical practice in the UK in the early 19th century. Once I found him though, I started over, this time researching him specifically. I was of course hampered in this by the fact I do not have access to archives in the UK or South Africa but I tried to be as thorough as possible given my limited sources. I have done a lot of close readings of footnotes particularly. I would love at some point to actually get into the archive and put my hands on some of his writings and do this as a legitimate historical study, but this is what I have so far.

Note 2: this is not a comprehensive bibliography. This is a list of sources that I either directly quote or reference.

Copley, Hamish. “Dr. James Barry.” The Drummer’s Revenge: GLBT history and politics in Canada. 11/22/15 https://thedrummersrevenge.wordpress.com/2007/12/02/dr-james-miranda-barry/

___ “Dr. James Barry.” The Secret History Project. 11/22/15 http://secrethistoriesproject.tumblr.com/post/37785045159/17-dr-james-barry-when-dr-james-barry-died-in

du Preez, H. M. “Dr James Barry: the early years revealed.” South African Medical Journal, 98(1), 52+.  (2008). 11/22/2015 http://go.galegroup.com.libezproxy2.syr.edu/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA180102585&v=2.1&u=nysl_ce_syr&it=r&p=HRCA&asid=ade4bdae2006924ba840bdb51988cf2e

Holmes, Rachel. Scanty Particulars: The Scandalous Life and Astonishing Secret of James Barry, Queen Victoria’s Most Eminent Military Doctor. New York: Random House, 2003.

Kubba, A.K, and M. Young “The Life and Gender of Dr. James Barry MD (1795-1865).” Proc R Coll Physicians Edinb (2001); 31:352-356 11/22/15 http://www.rcpe.ac.uk/journal/issue/vol31_no4/R_The_Life.pdf

McKenzie, Kirsten. Scandal in the Colonies: Sydney and Cape Town 1820-1850. Melborne: Melborne University Press, 2004.

Moulds, Alison. “James Miranda Barry.” Feminist and Women’s Studies Association Blog. 11/23/15 http://fwsablog.org.uk/2013/11/27/james-miranda-barry/

Nightingale, Florence. Letter to Parthenope, Lady Verney (undated). London: Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine.

Riddell, Fern. “Transgender Victorians: Do clothes make the Man?” Viceandvirtueblog: The London Music Hall’s 1850-1939. 11/23/15 https://viceandvirtueblog.wordpress.com/2015/05/

Ross, Robert. Status and Respectability in the Cape Colony 1750-1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Theal, George McCall. “Records of the Cape Colony 1793-1831” copied for the Cape government, from the manuscript documents in the Public Record Office, London 11/23/15 https://archive.org/details/recordsofcapecol18theauoft

Zagria. “Dr. James Barry.” A Gender Variance Who’s Who. 11/23/15 http://zagria.blogspot.co.uk/2008/01/james-miranda-stuart-barry-1795-1865.html#.VlL2NtWrTnA


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