The First British Surgeon to Perform a Successful C-Section Was a Woman Disguised as a Man

james-barryToday I found out that James Barry, the first British surgeon to perform a C-section in which both the mother and baby survived, was born a woman.

It is believed that “James Barry” started out in life as Margaret Ann Bulkley. She was born around 1789 in Ireland. Not much is known about her childhood, except that when it came time for her elder brother, John Bulkley, to start a career and get married, the family was plunged into poverty. John’s wedding alone cost £1500, not to mention the huge expense of apprenticing him to an attorney. Margaret’s father ended up in prison, and without any help from the ungrateful brother, her mother packed up Margaret and her sister and moved to London in hopes of finding work.

We also know that Margaret had not finished her education by the time she was 14 or 15. Her mother wrote to Margaret’s uncle James Barry, an artist, complaining:

What did you give my Child when she was here last June, did you ask her to Dinner, in short did you act as an Uncle or a Christian to a poor unprotected unprovided for Girl who had not been brought up to think of Labor and, Alas! whose Education is not finished to put her in the way to get Decent Bread for herself & whose share has been given to a Brother.

Mrs. Bulkley did not ask for money outright, and it’s unclear whether James would have been able to give anything if he wanted to—he doesn’t appear to have been very rich. However, when he died in 1806, his assets were liquidated and the money split between Mrs. Bulkley and her remaining living brother, with some of the money set aside for Margaret. But more importantly, James ran with a liberal, forward-thinking crowd. Two of his friends likely took Margaret under their wings. One of them was a doctor, the other a General who wanted to liberate his native Venezuela. They were also acquainted with William Godwin, who happened to be the widower of Mary Wollstonecraft, the writer of Vindication of the Rights of Women.

Together, they provided the ingredients for Margaret’s future. The then-radical idea of sending a woman to medical school was hatched. Margaret would go to medical school disguised as a young man named James Barry after his recently deceased uncle, pass the examinations, and reveal her true identity on the way to Venezuela to help the General’s cause.

And thus Margaret set off for medical school in Edinburgh in November 1809. She made the switch to the appearance of a man at the end of the month, as we can tell from a letter she wrote to a solicitor, Daniel Reardon: “… it was very usefull [sic] for Mrs.Bulkley to have a Gentleman to take care of her on Board Ship and to have one in a strange country …”

In yet another letter to Reardon sometime later, Barry reported on “his” progress in school:

… indeed everything has far exceeded my most sanguine expectations and Mr. Barry’s Nephew is well received by the Professors &ca. I have been introduced to my Lord Buchan & have taken out my tickets for Anatomy, Chemistry and Natural Philosophy. I have been metriculated [sic] and attend the second Greek class at the University in fact I have my hands full of delightfull business & work from seven oClock in the morning till two the next …

It is this letter that is the first to be signed by “James Barry.” However, Reardon wrote on the outside of the letter “Miss Bulkley.” Comparisons between the handwriting in the letter and a previous one signed by Miss Bulkley further prove that Margaret Bulkley and the future doctor James Barry were in fact the same person.

While at school, Barry studied the sort of classes you’d expect of medical students today: anatomy, surgery, medical theory, chemistry, and pharmacy, among others. 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.

Unfortunately, she’d hit a little snag in her plans. General Miranda had been taken prisoner and died of typhus, meaning her plans to go to Venezuela came to naught. That meant she had to continue hiding her true gender or risk all of her hard work being for nothing.

Barry decided to join the British Army instead and participate in the Napoleonic Wars. She had a good reputation and some excellent credentials, meaning she was a good candidate for the job. There was just one problem: the physical examination. It’s unclear exactly how she managed to get around it, but it’s probable that she obtained a certificate from a private doctor saying she was in good health.

The military sent Barry around the world: Canada, Jamaica, India, and Malta, among others. But one of her biggest accomplishments took place in South Africa in 1826. While she was stationed there, she performed a Caesarean section on a woman. This was the first known instance of a British surgeon performing the surgery with both mother and child surviving. It was remarkable at the time, as C-sections were still a rarity, performed in an attempt to save the baby only when it looked like the mother wasn’t going to make it. The child, a boy, was named after “Barry”.

Barry was reportedly a very good doctor with an excellent bedside manner. She was very professional and attempted to improve conditions for patients wherever she went. Barry also appeared to love working, and resisted retirement at the age of 65. She spent the next few years in London and died in 1865 of dysentery.

In her will, she stated that no post-mortem examination was to be conducted. On her death certificate it was noted that she was male, but the nurse tending her had a different story. When her doctor was questioned about the revelation, he replied with this letter:

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. She wished to obtain some prerequisites of his employment, which the Lady who kept the lodging house in which Dr Barry died had refused to give him. Amongst other things she said that Dr Barry was a female and that I was a pretty doctor not to know this and she would not like to be attended by me.

I informed him that 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. She then said that she had examined the body, and was a perfect female and farther that there were marks of him having had a child when very young. I then enquired how have you formed that conclusion. The woman, pointing to the lower part of his stomach, said ‘from marks here. I am a maried [sic] woman and the mother of nine children and I ought to know.’

The woman seems to think that she had become acquainted with a great secret and wished to be paid for keeping it. I informed his that all Dr Barry’s relatives were dead, and that it was no secret of mine, and that 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 as I could positively swear to the identity of the body as being that of a person whom I had been acquainted with as Inspector-General of Hospitals for a period of years.

The news made headlines, but the army kept its records from the public for 100 years. That meant no one was able to get their hands on it for some time, at which point Barry’s childhood history began to unravel.

As for the stretch marks that initially betrayed her, it’s unknown who the child might have been or when exactly Barry carried a child, but there was a time between 1820 and 1821 when she was mysteriously absent which would have allowed her to carry the child and give birth in secret.

It is remarkable to think that Barry was able to maintain the disguise for 56 years without anyone suspecting that “he” was actually “she.” 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 . . .

With her medical expertise, it’s likely that Barry was able to perpetuate these types of lies about herself to cover up the feminine aspects of her appearance—like a perpetually smooth chin—that she couldn’t hide. Others, like Bradford, jumped to their own conclusions. After all, how could any woman pass a medical school examination and become a respected doctor?

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  • “It is remarkable to think that Barry was able to maintain the disguise for 56 years without anyone suspecting that he was actually she.”

    This is an interesting story and thank you for sharing it. However, you are insulting every trans person who has ever lived in stealth mode for years of their life. There is nothing remarkable about it. It is common and easy to gender people by the way they dress, move, or speak which has absolutely nothing to do with their primary or secondary sex characteristics.

    Secondly, please do not misgender people. “In her [sic] will, she [sic] stated that no post-mortem examination was to be conducted.” That is serious evidence in favor of the fact that he wished to remain known in legacy as a man. Moreover, whether he was a transgender man or a woman in disguise, he presented himself as a man for, as you said, 56 years. “She” is highly inappropriate and a disrespectful way to write about the dead.

    • “you are insulting every trans person who has ever lived in stealth mode for years of their life” You speak for every trans person that has ever lived? Get over yourself. Just because that’s how you think doesn’t mean everyone else does. I see that no trans person, living or dead, has bothered to yet get offended about this article in the comments. Maybe you should let them speak for themselves.

      This woman was not a trans person as far as we can tell. From the picture shown, she looked like a woman trying to look like a man. Without the help of modern hormones and surgery, the fact is, not all by any stretch, but many trans people look and/or sound like one gender trying to look and sound like another. That’s completely fine and there is nothing wrong with that, some people even find that more attractive, but in her time the hormone therapies and stuff weren’t available and people would have thought there was something very wrong with what she was doing and even the rumour of it could have caused her a lot of problems and ruined her career. Given that environment, I think the author was very right in saying it’s “remarkable to think that Barry was able to maintain the disguise for 56 years without anyone suspecting that he was actually she”. Especially in the military where her lesser strength, higher pitched voice, and lack of facial hair should have had people at least suspecting there was something amiss. Everyone in our military in Barry’s lifetime was required to have a moustache by the military dress code.

      For political correctness’ sake, you can say otherwise all you want, but in that scenario it’s really just a case of the emperor’s new clothes for many people without hormone therapy, make-up, and stuff like that. Again, nothing wrong with that at all and more power to all trans people out there. What they’ve had to put up with through most of history in many parts of the world is ridiculous. People should always be allowed to do what they want as long as it’s not harming anyone else.

      For your second point, again this person was not trans as far as we can tell so it would be incorrect to refer to she as a he. But even when people slip up there, I think it’s more a problem with the limitations of the English language or a person not knowing what’s the appropriate wording in most cases than people actually trying to be offensive in any way. Cut people some slack and save your ire for people who actually have backwards ideas about this sort of thing. And her not wanting an autopsy is no evidence of anything definitive. We could just as easily assume she didn’t want the media hoopla that would have and did follow discovering this about her.

      ““She” is highly inappropriate and a disrespectful way to write about the dead.” You’re saying there is something wrong with being a woman? I personally kind of enjoy it. You see how easy it is to draw broad conclusions based on your own mental paradigm from taking little quotes from something? I know reasonably that you’re not saying that at all, but if I was so inclined to nitpick like you are on every little word that sentence could be very offensive to women.

      Nothing about this article should be offensive to anyone who’s not just got a huge hard-on for political correctness. Sorry for the long rant, but the overly PC “get offended at everything little thing no matter what the original speaker was actually saying or believes” world we live in today makes me sick sometimes. Bullying authors into following that paradigm lest they be publicly shamed isn’t a very nice thing to do. If the author had actually been presenting offensive ideas that would be different. But nitpicking every little word is ridiculous.

      • Brilliant response. There is no evidence provided in the article that “James Barry” was a transman. She was a woman, trying to survive in the world by living the life of a male in order to access the privileges available only to men in that time and place. No evidence at all that she was ‘trans.’

    • While it’s true that people are gendered according to the cultural norms of dress, mannerisms, etc. the fact remains that secondary sex characteristics are “read” by others, and gender expression was very strict in those times between the sexes. So for a man to not have facial hair one would expect there must be a reason. Quickly meeting someone might not cause suspicion but spending a lot of time with a man who never has stubble would have attracted attention, combined with other characteristics.

      Considering that this person only started using a male name/clothing/identity in order to get into the medical profession it doesn’t suggest they felt that they were male from birth. It’s perfectly possible that a woman could live as a man and decide that she liked the lifestyle it afforded her better than the role reserved for women at the time and might grow to like it so much she would keep it up rather than risk losing everything.
      It is also possible this person might fit the criteria of what is called “trans” nowadays but we cannot know their gender and it’s safe enough to assume it is a woman. Not to mention that “she” refers to people of the female sex, of which this person was according to the evidence. It may be rude to use the wrong pronoun with someone who has stated their preference but this person is long dead, how can we know?

  • The misgendering in this article makes me angry. It was either written by someone who doesn’t give a damn about mis-gendering trans people, or a feminist who wants to appropriate a trans hero. 

    Given that Barry did not want his gender assigned at birth to be known after his death, and the lengths he went to to affirm his make identity while alive, we can assume he was transgender rather than a cross-dresser.

    Incidentally, the only testimony that Barry had given birth came fron the woman who laid out his corpse. Given how much more tittilating it is if Barry was a mother *as evidenced by the way this piece is structured* of COURSE she said Barry had had a child. There is no actual evidence of this child at all.

    Interesting quotations from the doctor who signed his death certificate. I suspected he knew Barry’s secret, but it is interesting he was working on assumptions and wasn’t a confidant.

    • She didn’t want to be outed as a female because she wouldn’t have been allowed to practice medicine as a female. Nothing more, nothing less. I repeat, no evidence at all that this person was ‘trans.’

    • There is NO way to know whether this person was transgender or not. We cannot know whether deep inside they had a subjective sense of a particular gender or not, or if so which one. There have been plenty of women throughout history who pretended to be men for the advantages they could gain from it due to sex discrimination. That doesn’t mean they are all trans. There could be many reasons why this person would want their birth sex to be kept secret after their death, for the sake of their family, or fear that their work might be erased from history, etc.

      I don’t think it’s fair to claim this person as a trans hero when there is no evidence that they were trans. This is not to dis trans people in any way but to get angry about “misgendering” someone whom you yourself do not know the gender of is also rude. And considering this person is now dead I hardly think they’re having their emotions hurt by it either way.

    • As a woman, you have my permission to use aphra behn as your icon. I don’t think you’re appropriating one of the most awesome and first popular female authors writing in England. At all.

    • In addition to the alleged stretch marks, there is the Mother’s angry letter to the Uncle Barry that strongly implies her young daughter was pregnant at that time through her uncle’s actions. “…did you act as an Uncle or a Christian… you put her in the way….” It also explains why she would be given a specific portion of his estate in her own right. Although this doesn’t agree with the author’s proposed timeline that would put a pregnancy later.

  • Interesting story and parts of it might be true.
    But in the detail it’s at least partly non sense. 1500 GBP for a wedding in that time was the equivalent over almost 1 million nowadays. Taken the rest of the story this must be an error or an overstatement. And if it is the latter, then I can’t take the rest of the story seriously.
    It gets mindboggling when the article is written with constant misgendering Barry. There simply is no undisputed medical record concerning his physical gender. So we have to make do with the gender he choose to out himself with. Wether he had a physical condition like intersexual people have is unclear. Wether he was in fact born female is also unclear. It’s just statements, no records, no facts.
    As fas as I’m concerned anyone who presents themselves male is male and anyone presenting themselves as female is female. Physical gender, intersexuality syndromes and the lot do not define a persons real gender, they are just a part of it but not the whole story.
    So this story is a misrepresentation of history.

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