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Scanty Particulars

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Dr. James Barry stands out in the annals of medical history. A surgeon in the British army, with a career that spanned the Napoleonic Wars to the Crimean War, the doctor was a tireless champion of the common soldier, fighting for good food, clean shelter, and trustworthy medications before Florence Nightingale ever arrived on the scene. In a time when abdominal surgery was risky and fairly uncommon, Dr. Barry won over the hearts of civilians in Cape Town by performing successful Cesarean sections. All of that should be enough for a claim to fame, but Dr. Barry’s fame rests not so much in medical glory as it does in the fact that she was a woman.

To be sure, a woman masquerading as a man is an oddity, especially today. So, it’s not altogether surprising that it’s this aspect of Dr. Barry’s life that has both made her famous and resulted in a lot of speculation about her. Judging from a quick Google search, she’s been embraced by lesbians as one of their own. Now, comes a new biography by Rachel Holmes, Scanty Particulars: The Scandalous Life and Astonishing Secret of James Barry, Queen Victoria’s Most Eminent Military Doctor which argues that she was a hermaphrodite.

But, to assume that she lived as she did because of sexual orientation or her biology is to ignore the circumstances of her times and of her life. After all, she lived in a time when the education of women was limited to such niceties as painting, music, and needlework; when women without fortunes or respectable families were virtually unmarriageable, at least in Dr. Barry’s social circle, and when unmarriageable women without fortunes were impoverished women. Given the circumstances, it isn’t too suprising that an uncommonly intelligent young girl of diminished means would be willing to live the life of a man for the chance to support herself doing something that she loved.

The particulars of Dr. Barry’s early life are shrouded in mystery, and need a better historian than Rachel Holmes to unveil them. The author makes her first historical mistake with her subject’s date of birth. Throwing out all evidence that Dr. Barry herself placed her birth around 1799, that boys in the 18th and early 19th century were sent to learn their chosen professions at early ages, and that those who knew James Barry early in her career often commented on her youth, she assigns her subject an age that is ten years older than most estimates. She also assigns to her the identity of Margaret Bulkley (who was most likely her older sister) on the basis of a handwriting comparison between a letter of Margaret’s and the entry for James Barry in the ledger of St. Thomas Hospital. The problem is, the photograph of the ledger makes it clear that all its names are in the same handwriting. Either Margaret Bulkley/James Barry was able to assume several identities at once, or the entries in the ledger were made by a clerk, as was the custom for official records of the time.

But there are some things that are known about her early life. She’s believed to have been the niece of the 18th century painter, James Barry. Her mother (his sister) had fallen on hard times, and found refuge of a sort with her brother in London, or perhaps with one of his many bohemian and free-thinking friends. Among those friends were Lord Buchan who espoused the rights of women, and General Francisco de Miranda, the Latin American revolutionary-in-exile who was known to have an extraordinary medical library. At least one biographer has speculated that it was under the influence of these two men, that the young and gifted girl was enrolled at Edinburgh as a medical student, disguised as a boy and under the name James Miranda Barry. After medical school, she joined the Army medical corps. She was thirteen. Many commented on her unusual appearance and she seemed to do her best to exaggerate her masculinity as a result. She was known as a loner and an eccentric, and something of a crank, but her medical skills were widely appreciated, and she made the usual career advancements. She died in London, age 65, having been forced into retirement. It was the woman who took care of her body after her death who revealed her secret.

Of course, the revelation was a bit of an embarassment for her personal physician, who attempted to cover himself by proclaiming that for all he knew Dr. Barry might have been an “imperfectly developed man.” It’s this statement that Rachel Holmes uses to launch her argument that Barry was, in fact, a hermaphrodite. It’s even less convincing than her estimate of the doctor’s age and identity.

Her most vigorous argument in favor of hermaphrodism is the choice of dissertation by the young medical student – female hernias. Before imaging techniques were widely available, undescended testicles were often mistaken for hernias, and in women they were sometimes the means by which hermaphrodism was discovered. Holmes speculates that James Barry chose that topic because she had a hernia herself, and therefore an undescended testicle, despite no evidence of any such ailment. The author mentions references by Barry to “cushions” that she needed to use for personal reasons. Most authors have understood those to be sanitary pads. Holmes understands them to have been trusses for the care of a hernia. Sanitary pads seem more likely. And as for the choice of a dissertation, it isn’t unusual for a young woman to choose a subject that would allow her to learn as much as possible about the female anatomy.

There are other problems with the hermaphrodite theory. The woman who prepared Barry’s body for burial also noted that she had stretch marks, as if she had once had a child. This is dismissed by Holmes as a misinterpretation of the ravages of yellow fever and other tropical diseases. But those diseases don’t leave stretch marks like those of pregnancy. And there are some details in Dr. Barry’s life that suggest that she was once in love and perhaps had a child.

In 1816, at the age of 17 she was stationed in Cape Town, South Africa and quickly became a favorite of the widower governor, Sir Charles Somerset. The two became very close, so close that there were rumors that they were having a homosexual affair. In fact, the only duel Barry actually fought was in the aftermath of a confrontation with the governor’s aide-de-camp when he told her that she couldn’t see the governor because he was busy with a prostitute. That’s a revelation that one soldier would casually make to another, but not one that a woman in love would accept with equanimity. Sir Charles left for England in 1819, his departure marked by the absence of his close friend, whose whearabouts are unaccounted for in that year. Some have speculated that in that year, Dr. Barry absented herself from Cape Town to conceal a pregnancy. Sir Charles returned to Cape Town two years later with a socially suitable wife. Dr. Barry was there to greet him, but their relationship was a distant one thereafter. and she eventually left the Cape to further pursue her career.

So, why the eagerness on the part of Ms. Holmes to paint James Barry as a hermaphrodite? Well, for one thing, it gives the book a different angle than previous biographies and piques the interests of publishers and readers alike. But Rachel Holmes also sees Barry as a modern hero of sexual ambiguity. Neither man nor woman, she chose her own sex. But in truth, Dr. James Barry’s story transcends her sex and her sexuality. She was a bold and brave heart who used her brains and her luck to forge a life denied her by her times. The fact that she was a woman is central to her heroism. It’s a pity that her most recent biographer denies her that distinction.

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  • Eric Olsen

    Fascinating Dr. Syd, thanks!