A Closer Look: James Miranda Stuart Barry

When you’re a historical author, you do a lot of research. Pair all of the book-specific research with a degree in Victorian British History with a focus on gender and sexuality, and I’ve got more random facts kicking around in my head than I know what to do with. I've always been fascinated by women in medicine. Today I'm taking a closer look at the unusual life and work of James Miranda Stuart Barry.

James Miranda Stuart Barry

"The good doctor wore three-inch lifts in his shoes, carried a parasol, and traveled the world with a milk goat. And he had a lousy temper. But James Barry earned the highest rank a doctor could achieve in the British army."

James Miranda Stuart Barry is a problematic, but important place to start when looking at first generation of female doctors to earn medical degrees in the United Kingdom. That's because Barry lived for decades as a man, and it was not until his death that people discovered that he was biologically female.*

James Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley between 1789 and 1791 to unknown parents. What we do know is that Bulkley would grow up and want to be a doctor. In the early 19th century, that was a profession barred to women. Florence Nightengale and the professionalization of nursing had not yet happened, and the only way for a woman to really be involved in the medical profession was through midwifery. Stuart, however, had a plan.

In 1809, Bulkley assumed the name of James Barry to gain entrance to Edinburgh University (Women). Not much is known about Barry's time at the university, but he successfully kept his gender under wraps and graduated in 1812 (Karlekar). Not satisfied with secretly smashing one barrier, he joined the British Army--an organization completely off limits to women--and was appointed Medical Inspector of South Africa.

By all accounts, Barry was not easy to get along with. He was, "bombastic, opinionated and tactless." He criticized local officials in South Africa for inadequate water systems that he insisted on being upgraded. After his work in South African, he took his crusade for better sanitary conditions and nutrition for soldiers to India, the Caribbean, and Canada (Women). In Canada, he would eventually be elevated to Inspector-General of Military Hospitals in Canada (Karlekar). Barry also has the distinction of performing one of the first Caesarean sections in the British Empire.

Barry died in 1865. The woman who prepared his body made what must have been the shocking discovery that the doctor was in fact biologically female (Women).^ It was a secret he had kept for 56 years all to maintain a life dedicated to medicine.

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*I'm a strong believer in respecting self-identification. While biologically Barry was female, he lived the majority of his life as a man. We don't know whether this decision was rooted in necessity because he wanted to practice medicine and would have been barred for his sex or whether Barry identified as male. Since we cannot ask Barry himself, I've chosen with great respect to identify him as male since that is the way he presented to society.

^While most sources seem to agree that Barry was biologically female, there are some people who dispute that claim. It is possible that Barry was a male hermaphrodite with breast development and external genitalia.

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"Her-Story: Then James Barry/Miranda Stuart," Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics On the Air!

Karlekar, Malavika, "An Anatomy of a Change: Kadambini Ganguly and the Seven Before Her",  The Telegraph India, July 8, 2007

Roland, Charles G., "Barry, James"Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval.