Surgeon James Barry , was a military surgeon in the British Army. After graduation from the University of Edinburgh Medical School, Barry served in India and Cape Town, South Africa. By the end of his career, he had risen to the rank of Inspector General in charge of military hospitals. In his travels he not only improved conditions for wounded soldiers, but also the conditions of the native inhabitants. Among his accomplishments was the first caesarean section in Africa by a British surgeon in which both the mother and child survived the operation. Although Barry lived his adult life as a man, it is believed that at birth he was identified or assigned as female and named Margaret Ann Bulkley, raised as a girl, and that he chose to live as a man so that he might be accepted as a university student and able to pursue a career as a surgeon. Thus Barry would be the first British woman to become a qualified medical doctor.
James Barry retired in 1864 — reputedly against his wishes — and returned to England. He died from dysentery on 25 July 1865. Sophia Bishop, the charwoman who took care of the body, examined his anatomy and revealed this information after the funeral. The situation came to light after an exchange of letters between George Graham of the General Register Office, and Major D. R. McKinnon, Barry’s doctor and the person who had issued the death certificate on which Barry was identified as male.
It has been stated to me that Inspector-General Dr James Barry, who died at 14 Margaret Street on 25 July 1865, was after his death found to be female. As you furnished the Certificate as to the cause of his death, I take the liberty of asking you whether what I have heard is true, and whether you yourself ascertained that he was a woman and apparently had been a mother?
Perhaps you may decline answering these questions; but I ask them not for publication but for my own information.
Your faithful servant
McKinnon’s response was as follows:
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.
Afterward many people claimed to have “known it all along”. The British Army sealed all records for 100 years. Historian Isobel Rae gained access to the army records in the 1950s, and concluded that Barry was the niece of James Barry the painter. He was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery under the name James Barry and his full rank. His manservant John subsequently returned to Jamaica.