James Barry, Nee Margaret Ann Bulkley

I found out only yesterday that James Barry, famous for being the first doctor in British history to keep both mother and baby alive after a cesarean-section, was actually a woman disguising herself as a man in order to practice medicine.

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                        (Dr. James Barry on the left)

How did I not know about this?

Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley in late 18th century Ireland, and with the help of some progressive friends — crazy liberals who thought women were equally human! – she disguised herself as James Barry and went to medical school in Edinburg in 1809.

She underwent the exams in May 1812. They involved two oral exams, a written exam, and a public defense of a written thesis—all of which was in Latin. She was successful, and graduated with 57 others in her class. In doing so, she became Britain’s first qualified female medical doctor.

She now faced the obstacle of practicing medicine. Women weren’t allowed to do such things, lest they die of hysteria from using their brain too much. The only way she could be a doctor was to remain “James Barry” for the rest of her life, so that is exactly what she did. She joined the British armed forces and traveled extensively as a military doctor. S/he made a good job of it too, and was so devoted to his/her guise as a man that s/he was called a “brute” by Florence Nightingale for his/her lack of chivalry. It wasn’t until s/he died in 1865 that his/her “secret” leaked out.

Sophia Bishop, the charwoman who took care of the body, examined his anatomy and revealed this information after the funeral. Major D. R. McKinnon, Barry’s doctor and the person who had issued the death certificate on which Barry was identified as male [wrote of the incident] … “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 … Amongst other things she said that Dr Barry was a female … 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”

Of course, the idea that a woman could actually be a doctor was just too ludicrous for many people, especially Barry’s fellow doctors, to accept without condition. After all, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson had only become the Britain’s first acknowledged female physician the year Barry died. Elizabeth Blackwell had become a physician in 1849 and her American counterparts were growing, but they had the decency (i.e. they were pushed toward it) to stay mainly in women “friendly” specialties like family practice and Ob/Gyn. There had always been midwifes and women tended to do the “doctoring” in the home, so that was sort of okay. Besides, everyone knew that female doctors were strange, unfeminine women who never married, probably because education rendered them sterile, and thus female physicians were suitably punished for their hubris. But a woman as a military physician? What?!? 

So, what did Barry’s learned colleagues opine when his/her “secret” was revealed postmortem by a petulant servant cum attempted blackmailer? Why, that Barry was either an incomplete man (due to his premature birth) or a hermaphrodite.

Major D. R. McKinnon explained:

“it was none of my business whether Dr Barry was a male or a female, and that I thought that he might be neither, viz. an imperfectly developed man … 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”

Edward Bradford, who met Barry in 1832 in Jamaica, noted that he had a more feminine appearance but recorded his thoughts in a letter: “He was born prematurely and his mother died at birth. . . The stories which have circulated about him since his death are too absurd to be gravely refuted. There can be no doubt among those who knew him that his real physical condition was that of a male in whom sexual development had been arrested about the sixth month of foetal life

Only hidden male gametes could explain Barry’s brains and behaviors. Gender was certainly not something that could be taught! It was inherent, and women were by gum the weaker sex. Ergo, Barry was some sort of tragically feminized dude. As for the idea that, as Sarah Bishop insisted, Barry had stretch-marks indicating a pregnancy … well, that was one of those stories too absurd to be gravely refuted. There was no way Barry could have been a fully biologically functioning female.

Women now account for just under half of all medical school graduates in the US, more than 50% in the UK, and almost 80% in Russia. Looks like the myth that women cannot be physicians has died, right? Well, except for articles written by self-declared feminist men explaining why having so many female doctors is bad because the silly bints start working part-time when they have kids or retire early.

J. Merion Thomas MD

(J. Meirion Thomas MD –  who explains why women docs are a bad NHS investment)

Nothing about this is culturally driven based on the expectations placed on women, you understand. Their ovaries make them do it and only the ones who promise, cross their hearts, to “lean in” should be allowed into med school and men should really be the first choice just in case the uterine-havers decide to use those wretched wombs anyway and become low-level unspecialized part-time GPs.

I wonder what Dr. James Barry would have to say about that?

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