• Kerry Chaput

Dr. James Barry, Surgeon and Mystery




The first surgeon to perform a successful cesarean section also became the Inspector General of military hospitals. Dr. James Berry graduated medical school at age twenty-two, having to petition to sit for the examination because of his young age.


Dr. James Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley in 1789 Ireland. Education was not an option for women of the time, and her family hatched a plan to correct that. When her uncle James Barry died in Margaret's teens, she assumed his identity, inherited his money, and enrolled as a teenager in medical school in Edinburgh. Dr. Barry identified as a man in public and private, but it is thought that close friends might have known his secret.


Showing great promise in the field of medicine, Dr. Barry enrolled as a soldier in the Army and quickly rose the ranks to Lieutenant. Known for his hot temper, Dr. Barry was difficult to work with, but known for his commitment and kindness to patients. He worked closely with Florence Nightingale who called him a brute!


An older Dr. Barry and Florence Nightingale

Dr. Barry was committed to excellence in care, treating both colonists and slaves during his ten-year placement in Cape Town Africa.

He advocated for improved sanitary conditions in facilities like asylums and prisons and adequate nutrition for patients, soldiers, and their families.


Dr. Barry was a groundbreaking surgeon and humanitarian. Due to the limitations of the time, it is unknown whether Dr. Barry acted as a woman under the cover of a male surgeon to advance in a man's world, or if he was a trans man living his authentic life. There has been much research on his life, with theories ranging from androgen insensitivity syndrome to a non-binary identification, but no one knows for sure how Dr. Barry identified or saw himself.


Perhaps my favorite point of this story is the surgeon that signed Dr. Barry's death certificate from dysentery in 1865 who said, "It is none of my concern what gender Dr. Barry is."

This doctor broke every standard of the time and devoted his life to medicine and the military, with lasting impacts on healthcare for years to come.

Dr. Barry proved that it is what we do that should be remembered, not what holds us back.

The complicated nature of his life still leaves some mystery, just as the quiet and private doctor wished.




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