Dr. James Barry, aka Margaret Bulkley

Stephanie Pain has an interesting article in this week's New Scientist about Dr. James Barry, a nineteenth-century British doctor who may have been a woman. She writes:

MYSTERY, intrigue, romance... the story of Dr Barry has them all. The tale is so compelling it's been told countless times, yet no one has ever solved the central mystery: who was Barry, the pint-sized physician with the sandy curls and squeaky voice? The doctor was both caring and quarrelsome, dainty yet dashing. He fought for better conditions for the troops, shot a man in a duel and faced a court martial, yet still made it to the top of his profession.
Barry had sprung from nowhere to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1809, and might have returned to obscurity if he hadn't fallen victim to the epidemic of dysentery that swept London in the summer of 1865. He had no known relatives, so the job of preparing his body for burial fell to Sophia Bishop, the charwoman at Barry's lodgings. When the funeral was over, Bishop dropped a bombshell: the distinguished army doctor was a woman.

The debate about Barry's gender has been going on ever since 1865. Short of exhuming the body, there was no good way to settle the debate. But new evidence was recently found which indicates, pretty conclusively, that Barry was a woman. The evidence consists of letters from 1809 in which Barry's family solicitor identifies Barry as "Miss Bulkley."

However, Barry's motives still remain unclear. Did she pose as a man purely for economic reasons? Or was she a transsexual who felt that her true identity was as a man?


Posted on Wed Mar 12, 2008


I don't think there's much mystery for 'why'. She had a vocation to be a doctor, in a time when women weren't even allowed to be midwives, and a yearning for adventure and excitement, at a time when women were supposed to be sit at home quietly and meekly. She was a woman who wanted the freedom that men had - so she became a man. There's quite a few women who did the same thing.
Posted by Nona  on  Wed Mar 12, 2008  at  06:48 AM
Nona, some of the comments posted at the end of the New Scientist article by transgendered people make a convincing case (I think) that Barry may have been motivated by more than economics or a yearning for adventure. They point out that Barry could have reverted to her original gender after getting her medical degree, or after becoming established as a doctor, and there would have been options available to her. For instance, she could have become a reformer for women's rights. Instead, she not only remained a man, but went out of her way to appear manly: boasting about her sexual conquests and fighting duels. Which suggests that she really wanted to be a man. i.e. it wasn't just a disguise she adopted for economic reasons. It was what she felt was her true identity.
Posted by The Curator  in  San Diego  on  Wed Mar 12, 2008  at  08:30 AM
Alex, I don't agree to you and the comments with the article here.

It wouldn't have been as simple as "get the degree and then revert to your original gender". If Barry would have done that, her career as a doctor would have been over. She needed to hold up the disguise in order to be able to practise her profession, given the attitudes of that time.
Posted by LaMa  in  Europe  on  Wed Mar 12, 2008  at  09:44 AM
Sure, but why the resistance to the idea that she may have been transgendered and actually wanted to be a man? All I'm saying is that we don't actually know her motive. Economics isn't the only thing that motivates people. In fact, many people pursue paths in life that don't make much economic sense.
Posted by The Curator  in  San Diego  on  Wed Mar 12, 2008  at  11:03 AM
hey alex, ive seen this arguement used for many historical figures who crossdressed for a variety of reasons, including Billy Tipton and even brandon teena. dispite all the evidence that people like this were very likely transgendered (the fact that billy tipton had several wives who didnt know he was physically female) people tend to resist the idea, i dunno maybe transphobia and a reluctance to admit that transgenderism is anything but a modern "perversion".

that said, the cynics are right, unless you time travel and put Dr James Barry under intensive scrutiny then theres no way that we would know his/her motives, was she economically motivated or was he emotionally motivated, its all academic,
Posted by JoOdd  on  Wed Mar 12, 2008  at  01:25 PM
The problem with saying women did it just because they were trans-gendered, is that it denies the very real restrictions women were under, and the very strong need for adventure and excitment and fulfilment that women have. It's almost like asying if any woman went so far as to dress as a man to have a free and exciting life (just like man are allowed to do) then she must really have almost a man physically. It sounds like saying a physically and hormonally true woman would have been content to stay at home, or been happy to fight every step of the way for something that would be hers so easily if she just put a pair of trousers on.

Re; Billy Tipton - Remember this was at a time when sex education was non-existent - really REALLY non-existant. The first time a woman saw a naked man was on her wedding night - and she didn't know what one looked like. Very dark room, bit if extre equipment, and a naive young girl could be fooled into thinking Billy was a man.
Posted by Nona  on  Thu Mar 13, 2008  at  06:26 AM
Nona sums it up well - and frankly, I got a bit pissed by the remarks following my comment because they miss the point I raised and unneccesarily politicise the whole thing by dragging some (wrongly) perceived transgender-phobia into it.

My point was that comments like "she could have gotten her degree and then come clean" or "she could have played a role as women's rights reformer" completely ignore the reality of the late 17th/early 18th century and social attitudes towards the role of women at that time. Hence they completely ignore the true social context of the topic discussed: instead a very naive judgement is made from a modern contemporary perspective completely ignoring to view things in their true historic context. That is a mistake you learn to avoid as a first year student in historical and allied fields.

Nona is right - she might have simply been a woman that wanted to do a job/activity reserved for men at that time. As such, she had no choice but to disguise as a male and keep up that disguise. In her time, there was no other option, as doing what some here bring up would makje the person in question an absolute social outcast.

That has nothing to do with an unwillingness to go into "Queer history" and accept the potential presence of transgender people in history. It is simply Occam's razor. Suggestions about transgender sentiments with Barry simply need much more additional arguments - e.g. diary fragments- which point into this direction. Otherwise, it is unfounded speculation. This has nothing to do with attitudes of acceptance towards transgenders. It pisses me off that the point I raised is next turned into a political debate about transgender acceptance, which has nothing to do with it really. Those that do so misappropriate the past, and the case of Barry, for current socio-political agenda's (no matter how right these agenda's may be regarding our contemporary society).
Posted by LaMa  in  Europe  on  Thu Mar 13, 2008  at  09:50 AM
okay, i have to say i do agree with LaMa that the idea that after gaining her degree she could have just reverted to living as male is pretty ridiculous and in those times would have probably have got you committed,and i agreed in my inital comment that there is no way to prove that james/margret is in anyway transgendered, but at the same time i think out of all the women who crossdressed to get ahead in life, its a bit unlikely that there wouldnt be some percent of them that were trans. considering transgenderism has been diagnosed as a "mental illness" for about 600 years, isnt it likely that some transgenders will have joined the normal women in dressing up as men to gain their independance?

then again this is speculation, maybe all the transpeople did just sit at home or got committed who knows. and i dont think there is a strong enough arguement for james barry being trans, yeah she boasted alot about his/her sexual prowess, but that could be at the same time Margeret trying to uphold her masculine identity

just a few thoughts, sorry your article got hijacked Lama
Posted by JoOdd  on  Thu Mar 13, 2008  at  11:43 AM
JoOdd: of course there will have been people who felt transgender motivations in history too. But that is a separate issue.

Problem with (pre-)historic research is that it is very easy to "write" things into your interpretations that have more to do with preoccupations with current contemporary socio-cultural issues then real socio-cultural issues at the time period investigated. Your initial comment suggested to me that was the case here concerning this specific case of discussion.

btw: when I wrote "late 17th/early 18th century" in my earlier comment, I meant late 18th/early 19th of course.....sorry, I was tired at the end of a workday.
Posted by LaMa  in  Europe  on  Thu Mar 13, 2008  at  12:04 PM
OK, two ideas that haven't been mentioned yet. Could she have been a lesbian who posed as a man so that her affairs with women would be respectable? Or, could she be a heterosexual woman who used this cover as a way to have affairs without the resulting shame?
Posted by Christopher Cole  on  Thu Mar 13, 2008  at  12:05 PM
Your post is very informative
Posted by Cute laptop cases  on  Fri Mar 14, 2008  at  05:27 AM
Of course we have no way to definitely know the motivation behind this person's behavior. I would suggest, though, that when a person goes to such extreme lengths, the probability is that they are transgendered.
Posted by Cranky Media Guy  on  Fri Mar 14, 2008  at  06:45 PM
Rethinking my comment earlier, I doubt she wasa a heterosexual woman out for liasons without shame since guys being guys probably wouldn't have kept silence about her gender. The lesbian idea is more likely of the two. And CMG, she could have easily got caught up in a situation that had run away from what she intended and been forced to maintain her cover. You know, "Once you ride a tiger it is hard to get off" sort of situation. Not to deny the possibility of transgender, but it doesn't prove it either.
Posted by Christopher Cole  on  Sat Mar 15, 2008  at  12:58 AM
I think the phrase "economic reasons" totally confuses the issue. As Nona points out, Barry/Bulkley pursued a vocation that would have been unattainable as a woman--but this doesn't insure economic prosperity in any way. Indeed, as a woman of a certain social class, she would have access to a comfortable living, and so pursuing a career as a physician (not to mention a man) is risky economically.
Posted by Amaia  on  Sun Mar 16, 2008  at  10:54 PM
In answer to Christopher - I'm sure I remember reading somewhere that when they came to examine James Barry after death, they found that she had had a child at some point, so obviously at some time there had been a heterosexual relationship - not to rule out the possbility of lesbian affairs, of course ( I belive I read it in a book called Imposters)
Posted by Nona  on  Mon Mar 17, 2008  at  06:27 AM
ne more point - the problem with saying 'considering transgenderism has been diagnosed as a "mental illness" for about 600 years, isnt it likely that some transgenders will have joined the normal women in dressing up as men to gain their independance?' is that the definition of trangenderism is different then to what it is now. Back then, almost any time pre WWI, a woman who expressed a desire to wear trousers instead of a crinoline, who wanted to earn her own living, and not be dependent on a man, who wanted the vote, was considered as a transgender, and therefore, 'mentally ill'. Did you know that wanting votes for women was seen as a sign of mental illness, and was used to deprive women of their children? Women we'd consider as independent, or forceful, or clever, or forward-thinking, would be seen as a man in petticoats.
Posted by Nona  on  Mon Mar 17, 2008  at  06:39 AM
it's true that the definition back then was different but i sill dont see that as meaning it is impossible that absolutely none were trans, i still think its very possible that some were, however its practically impossible to prove so its just a moot point, im just not confortable with the absolute denial of the possiblity, it seems to happen alot, (and not with rather spotty cases like this, its also happened with the early people who undertook gender reassignment).

and yeah its possible she was a lesbian, its possible she was alot of things, but what is provable is a different matter.
Posted by JoOdd  on  Mon Mar 17, 2008  at  05:46 PM
Dr James Barry, whatever he/she or it was, was the first medical doctor to perform a caesarian in South Africa where "it" was based as a military doctor.
It was determined at her death that he was in fact she.
I'm probably wrong, but, I also heard he/she/it died here in South Africa.
Posted by DukeNukem  on  Fri May 16, 2008  at  08:02 AM
I just finished reading the fascinating story of Margaret Bulkley. The only reason she posed as a man was because in the early 1800's, women were not permitted to attend medical school so she had no choice.
Posted by Ashley  on  Fri Jul 31, 2009  at  08:03 PM
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.