Weird History
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The Woman Who Disguised Herself As A Man For Decades To Practice Surgery Before Women Were Allowed

Updated October 21, 2019 49.1k views14 items

In 1865, a decorated surgeon named James Barry perished from dysentery. When a housemaid prepared Barry's body for interment, she uncovered a shocking secret: Barry was biologically female. For nearly 50 years, Dr. James Barry disguised himself as a man, becoming one of the top surgeons in the 19th century. Victorians obsessed with scandal speculated about Barry's true identity and why the surgeon lied for decades.

Today, we know that Dr. James Barry was born Margaret Bulkley, the daughter of an Irish grocer. In an era when women were not allowed to attend medical school, Bulkley adopted a new persona to become a surgeon. But even after graduating, Dr. James Barry hid the fact that he was a woman. How did Barry manage to carry off the deception for years? How many people knew that Barry was secretly a woman? And was Barry driven by his desire to work in medicine, or a preference to live as a man?

  • Barry Planned To Travel To Venezuela, Where Women Could Practice Medicine

    Barry Planned To Travel To Venezuela, Where Women Could Practice Medicine
    Photo: Martin Tovar y Tovar / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Before transforming into James Barry, Margaret Ann Bulkley had befriended General Francisco de Miranda of Venezuela. Miranda almost certainly knew of Margaret's disguise. When renaming herself, Margaret honored Miranda by calling herself James Miranda Stuart Barry.

    After receiving a medical degree in 1812, Barry decided to travel to Venezuela. The country let female doctors practice, so Barry could give up the disguise. But General Miranda was behind bars by 1812, leaving Barry with few options besides continuing the deception.

    Barry soon enlisted in the British armed forces as a surgeon.

  • The Surgeon Swore And Developed A Reputation As A Ladies' Man

    The Surgeon Swore And Developed A Reputation As A Ladies' Man
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    James Barry had a terrible temper. He yelled at Florence Nightengale in Istanbul because she didn't protect herself from the sun. He shouted at patients in his hospital and had a reputation for smashing medicine bottles against the wall. Barry even challenged a captain to a duel.

    Throughout his long career, Barry swore heavily and flirted with women, with one man accusing the surgeon of paying "improper attentions" to his wife.

    In one case, when someone said, "You look more like a woman than a man," Barry struck him in the face with a whip. 

  • Rumors Swirled That Barry Had An Affair With The Governor Of South Africa

    As an army surgeon, James Barry spent 10 years serving in Cape Town, South Africa. While in South Africa, Barry befriended Lord Charles Somerset, the British governor for the colony. 

    Eventually, Barry moved into the governor's residence. Rumors swirled that the surgeon and the governor were having an affair. One poster even accused Somerset of "buggering Dr. Barry." The scandal resulted in a commission to investigate the relationship, which exonerated both. 

  • As A Surgeon, Barry Performed The First Successful Caesarean Section

    Barry is said to have been a great surgeon, and he ascended to the rank of Inspector General in 1857. The role, equivalent to a Brigadier General, placed Barry in charge of military hospitals. 

    In a testament to his skills, Barry's career included a notable breakthrough: He was the first surgeon to successfully perform a caesarean section where both mother and child lived. Barry performed the emergency C-section in 1826 on a kitchen table in Cape Town. Without anesthesia, Barry's patient and her child survived the procedure. 

    Barry also pushed for social reforms in South Africa, railing against the harsh treatment at correctional facilities and asylums. The surgeon advocated for better water sanitation in Cape Town and treated everyone, including slaves and the poor.