James Barry, pioneering nineteenth century army surgeon, had a secret
August 4, 2016 3:18 PM   Subscribe

"Sophia Bishop was laying out the body of Dr James Barry, on July 25, 1865, when she screamed. Her master was a woman."

"In a time when women had very few career choices, a cunning plan was hatched so that Margaret could become a doctor. She arrived by sea in Edinburgh as ‘James Barry’, attended medical school and graduated in 1812. After six months at St Thomas's Hospital in London, she joined the army as a surgeon in 1813. While in the army, in charge of the Cape Colony, she reorganised medical care with a strong emphasis on public health, improved hygiene standards and adequate diet. Her methods of nursing sick and wounded soldiers from the Crimea meant that she had the highest recovery rate of the whole war. She also performed one of the first successful Caesarean sections, in 1826, and produced a definitive report on cholera in Malta in 1848."

"Barry was a fury, a force, a swaggering Regency dandy in a tricorn hat, wearing a sword almost as long as his five-foot height. He was also a teetotaller and a vegetarian. He fought a duel, was arrested twice and, in a scandal that rocked Cape Town society, was publicly accused of a homosexual affair with his friend and protector, the governor of the Cape." (From a review of a new biography)

Note that Dr. Barry kept her secret from the British army for more than fifty years while serving in some very rough and remote colonial outposts and even going on active military campaigns.
posted by Eyebrows McGee (29 comments total) 103 users marked this as a favorite
 
Patricia Duncker has an interesting novel about James Miranda Barry (note: it's called James Miranda Barry in the UK).
posted by thomas j wise at 3:24 PM on August 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


This brightens my day! Thanks for posting!
posted by persephone's rant at 3:35 PM on August 4, 2016


I've been fascinated by Barry for a long time and hope the new book does well.

A couple of years ago, I was in an all-female production of Julius Caesar, and we had great fun in workshops learning how to move like men. It made me wonder - one reads about women passing as men in all kinds of wars throughout history. There had to have been women serving in the Roman army at the time who were doing the same thing we were, and for the same reason.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 3:48 PM on August 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


Oh no, yet another kick-ass lady I desperately need to know more about. Like, right now.

no seriously this is great!
posted by littlesq at 3:52 PM on August 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


There had to have been women serving in the Roman army at the time who were doing the same thing we were, and for the same reason.

It was Disneyfied in the 90s, but in some versions of the story of Hua Mulan she dresses as a man in order to enlist and fight.
posted by teponaztli at 3:56 PM on August 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


I need to find a citation for this when I get home, but I remember reading in multiple anthropology textbooks that nearly every era over the past 2500 years had a handful of instances of this both in Western and non Western nations. So awesome.
posted by Hermione Granger at 4:01 PM on August 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


Those who enjoy the concept of women posing as men in military scenarios might enjoy Terry Pratchett's marvelous Monstrous Regiment, one of his best IMO.
posted by WCityMike at 4:06 PM on August 4, 2016 [26 favorites]


Monstrous Regiment is fantastic, however i will say that about almost all Terry Pratchett's books.
posted by dazed_one at 4:10 PM on August 4, 2016 [9 favorites]


Love Monstrous Regiment! "Polly Oliver" was always one of my favorite folk songs.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:18 PM on August 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


The articles generally present Barry as a woman pretending to be a man (though pronoun use varies by article), but Googling for other photos/illustrations of Barry, I've come across pages describing Barry as a transgender surgeon. I wonder which is true.
posted by Bugbread at 4:24 PM on August 4, 2016 [12 favorites]


The articles generally present Barry as a woman pretending to be a man (though pronoun use varies by article), but Googling for other photos/illustrations of Barry, I've come across pages describing Barry as a transgender surgeon. I wonder which is true.

Impossible to know, unless Barry left some testimony. I have read accounts of other pre-modern people assigned female at birth who were recorded as saying that they 'felt like a man inside' - one 17th century Dutch person testified so in court.

I've read some of the research on cross-dressing women and other assigned female at birth who lived their lives presenting as male. They have always been there, though the reasons they might do it (gender identity, sexual orientation, but also safety, disguise, eg when travelling) vary. It appears to be more common in places and times when popular people are moving around more, which makes sense: you can't change how you present in your own village, but if you are migrating anyways it's easier to change your identity.

It was also easier to do in the past, when clothes were less well tailored, and (in Europe at least) people wore a lot more of them, even in summer. But also, I think it was easier to do then because gender presentation was much more divided and specific -- people didn't look as closely to more subtle indicators of sex.
posted by jb at 4:39 PM on August 4, 2016 [9 favorites]


"I know my waist is slender, my fingers they are small / but it would not make me tremble to see ten thousand fall"
posted by uosuaq at 4:51 PM on August 4, 2016 [7 favorites]


Yes, there's a decidedly non-zero possibility that Barry was male-identified. I don't think we have any of his writings which sort of leaves you guessing based on whether someone resumed presenting as female after retirement, but Barry died shortly after retiring. (For instance, a number of women who fought in the US Civil War presenting as male later resumed living as women, so "not trans" is a pretty reasonable assumption to make about them. Of course, some did continue living as men.)
posted by hoyland at 5:13 PM on August 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


See also James Tiptree, Jr., who lived as a woman in private life but as a man in all professional writing and correspondence. Would Tiptree have been happier living and identifying as a man full-time, if that had been an option? We can never know.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:21 PM on August 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


Well, that's the most romantic story I've heard all week. Incredible. I mean it probably felt a good deal less romantic to actually live it, but as a story? Solid gold. What a life. And a damn good doctor as well, by the sounds of it.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:41 PM on August 4, 2016


This was amazing, thanks! It does sound from the article that her family came up with the original plan - imagine, at 14, being literally shipped off to attend medical school with a new name and new gender. I mean, damn. Incredible strength and bravery and evidently medical chops as well.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:15 PM on August 4, 2016


Marvelous. Thank you!
posted by branravenraven at 7:15 PM on August 4, 2016


@Faint of Butt: AFAIK, Tiptree posed as male explicitly because it gave her freedom to write in ways that she couldn't as a woman (see, eg, a notorious introduction to one of her pieces, highlighting it as a story that could never have been written by a woman).

Implying that the real issue is that Tiptree was forced to act as a woman in real life is -- well, I for one find it rather appropriative.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 8:22 PM on August 4, 2016 [6 favorites]


If you are interested in Tiptree's writings about gender there is an excellent biography available that touches on this issue. It's pretty clear from her letters that she had complicated feelings about gender and sex, and her use of a male pseudonym was not just about publishing.
posted by bq at 8:31 PM on August 4, 2016


There had to have been women serving in the Roman army at the time who were doing the same thing we were, and for the same reason.

Off topic: Due to several agonizing times teaching Roman army courses, I can say this would be unlikely except at some huge moment of crisis, as the Romans did a pretty thorough genital check to make sure they weren't enrolling eunuchs (one testicle was fine; nonegot you tossed out...); not sure if know what all the auxiliary forces did, but would be surprised if not something similar when they were being shuffled around as they would become Romans when they retired.

I imagine some things would be easier as a surgeon or officer as you'd have more privacy, but still it boggles the mind how you'd pull this off for years. And periods! Diguising those would be no fun.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:09 PM on August 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


It would be dead interesting to know Barry's thoughts on her/his own gender and sexuality (Barry was accused of sleeping with both men and women, in highly public and scandalous accusations), and what parts of her life were performance and what parts were identity ... Did she chase other men's wives so assiduously to keep up a front as a male flirt and rake, or was she actually pursuing them out of sexual interest, or some combination of the two? It's just so tantalizing because so many different stories are plausible and it seems just out of reach.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:22 PM on August 4, 2016 [9 favorites]


So, a reverse Chevalier d'Eon?
posted by acb at 2:33 AM on August 5, 2016 [2 favorites]


I've been listening to Mike Duncan's podcast on the revolutionary period in South America, and was chuffed to see Miranda popping up in connection to Barry. That man really did know everybody. (He was BFF with Alexander Hamilton, Catherine the Great, and Jeremy Bentham, and got his inspiration for the colors of the modern Venezuelan flag after a chat with his good buddy Goethe.)
posted by maggiepolitt at 5:17 AM on August 5, 2016 [2 favorites]


I love this story and just want to know More All The Things. (Also I find the pregnancy so, so tantalizing - like is there a a secret line of descent from badass lady surgeons somewhere? Are they waiting to save the world?)
posted by corb at 6:29 AM on August 5, 2016 [1 favorite]


Due to several agonizing times teaching Roman army courses, I can say this would be unlikely


Thanks! That's really interesting to know. Very efficient, the Romans.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:10 AM on August 5, 2016


"In a time when women had very few career choices, a cunning plan was hatched so that Margaret could become a doctor."

Now get out and vote, dammit!
posted by eclectist at 9:19 AM on August 5, 2016 [1 favorite]


It would be a mistake to assume we know how Dr. Barry would have identified if she (or he) were around today. Understandings of the nature of sex and gender and sexuality were different, levels of opportunity for women were different, social norms were different... I think it's a good idea to remember that women who lived as men in the past could have been gay or trans or just straight cis women who wanted to live their lives outside of the roles assigned to them, but the concepts we use to understand these things now wouldn't have fit into Barry's understanding of the world.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:04 AM on August 5, 2016 [6 favorites]


Whenever anyone mentions James Tiptree in this context, sometimes I get mixed up and think they're talking about Billy Tipton.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:01 PM on August 5, 2016 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the cool post!

Seems to me it's a mistake to assume anything about this person's gender identity but my guess is it would likely straddle many modern ideas about gender in a way that would appear pretty complex to us now.
posted by latkes at 10:15 AM on August 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


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