Dr. James Barry’s secret

Dr. James Barry was a retired army surgeon, who died in London on July 25, 1865, at the age of 73.

Dr. James Miranda Stuart Barry (left) with John, a servant, and Barry’s dog Psyche

Throughout his long, illustrious career, that was spent mainly in the West Indies, South Africa and India, he was a popular, dynamic and extremely effective officer.

In his younger days, he was reputed for being somewhat of a lady’s man, due to his dashing good looks. On one occasion, he was found quarrelling with a brother-officer over a woman and even duelled with him.

It was only after he passed away that a disturbing reality was uncovered.

That Dr. Barry was a woman! Post mortem examination revealed, that some time in youth, Dr. Barry had given birth to a child.

The situation became public after an exchange of letters between George Graham of the General Register Office, and Major D. R. McKinnon, Barry’s doctor who had issued the death certificate on which Barry was identified as male.



It has been stated to me that Inspector-General Dr James Barry, who died at 14 Margaret Street on 25 July 1865, was after her death found to be female. As you furnished the Certificate as to the cause of his death, I take the liberty of asking you whether what I have heard is true, and whether you yourself ascertained that he was a woman and apparently had been a mother?

Perhaps you may decline answering these questions; but I ask them not for publication but for my own information.

Your faithful servant


George Graham

To which Mckinnon replied:



I had been intimately acquainted with the doctor for good many years, both in London and the West Indies and I never had any suspicion that Dr Barry was a woman. I attended him during his last illness, (previously for bronchitis, and the affection for diarrhoea). On one occasion after Dr Barry’s death at the office of Sir Charles McGregor, there was the woman who performed the last offices for Dr Barry was waiting to speak to me. She wished to obtain some prerequisites of his employment, which the Lady who kept the lodging house in which Dr Barry died had refused to give her. Amongst other things she said that Dr Barry was a female and that I was a petty doctor not to know this and she would not like to be attended by me. I informed her that it was none of my business whether Dr Barry was a male or a female, and that I thought that she might be neither, viz. an imperfectly developed man. She then said that she had examined the body, and was a perfect female and farther that there were marks of him having had a child when very young. I then enquired how have you formed that conclusion. The woman, pointing to the lower part of her stomach, said ‘from marks here. I am a maried woman and the mother of nine children and I ought to know.’


The woman seems to think that she had become acquainted with a great secret and wished to be paid for keeping it. I informed her that all Dr Barry’s relatives were dead, and that it was no secret of mine, and that my own impression was that Dr Barry was a Hermaphrodite. But whether Dr Barry was a male, female, or hermaphrodite I do not know, nor had I any purpose in making the discovery as I could positively swear to the identity of the body as being that of a person whom I had been acquainted with as Inspector-General of Hospitals for a period of years.


Yours faithfully,


D.R. McKinnon

To this day, the real identity of this woman is not very well-known. Some records claim that she was originally named Margaret Ann Bulkley. In 1808, she entered and was enrolled at Edinburgh University as a medical student, using the name James Barry. This happened when she was just 16 years old!

“Was I not a girl I would be a Soldier!”

-Dr James Barry, in a letter to her elder brother John for abandoning his legal studies for the military

Even throughout her student days, not a soul suspected her being a girl.

Barry was the first medically qualified British woman. Her other notable achievement is being the first British surgeon to successfully perform a caesarean section in Africa, with both the mother and her child surviving the operation. Barry not only improved the conditions of wounded soldiers during her travels, but also those of the native inhabitants. Despite a reputation as being tactless, impatient, argumentative and opinionated, Dr Barry was reported to have had a good bedside manner and professional skill.

Could it be possible, that being disillusioned by being jilted early in her life led her to decide to spend the rest of her life by posing as a male? Or if she took this step no one else would dare to take just so that the university could accept her and she could pursue a career as a surgeon. Nobody knows exactly why.

I never had such a blackguard rating in all my life – I who have had more than any woman – than from this Barry sitting on his horse, while I was crossing the Hospital Square with only my cap on in the sun. “He” kept me standing in the midst of quite a crowd of soldiers, Commissariat, servants, camp followers, etc., etc., every one of whom behaved like a gentleman during the scolding I received while “he” behaved like a brute . . . After “he” was dead, I was told that (Barry) was a woman . . . I should say that (Barry) was the most hardened creature I ever met.

-Florence Nightingale

Remember that she also had a child. What happened to the child? Was the child still alive at the time of her death? Even this is a mystery that perhaps only “Dr. James Barry” knows. The secret lived and died with her.

Featured header image source: ÇEKMEKÖY BELEDİYESİ


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