James Miranda Steuart Barry, FRS (probably born Margaret Anne Bulkley), military surgeon, physician (born c. 1789–99; died 25 July 1865 in London, England). Posted across the British Empire, Barry reformed medical standards in the British army. His final and highest-ranking position was as inspector-general of military hospitals in the Province of Canada in the 1850s. After his death, it was reported that Barry’s assigned sex at birth was female. This has sparked significant debate about his identity.
Note on pronouns: This article refers to James Barry with masculine pronouns, as this was how Barry referred to himself throughout his life.Click here for definitions of key terms used in this article.
In England, the Medical Board declared James Barry unfit for service because of ill heath. He argued for reinstatement — “I am now prepared to serve Her Majesty in any quarter of the Globe to which I may be sent” — but did not succeed. By the end of his career, Barry was the most senior inspector-general of hospitals in the British army.
He returned to Jamaica one last time to visit friends and lived the last years of his life in London. Barry died on 25 July 1865, victim of a diarrhea outbreak.
Barry had previously asked to be buried in the clothes he died in, without further inspection of his body. However, his corpse was prepared for burial by a servant. Shortly after his death and burial, the servant approached the army claiming she had not been paid her services. She also made a serious claim: in laying out the body, she had discovered Barry to have “a perfect female body” and stretch marks possibly indicating that Barry had given birth.
The doctor who had signed Barry’s death certificate had not examined his body after death. Having known Barry for several years, he had been able to identify the body without doing so. When the servant insisted to the doctor that Barry was female, he thought that Barry may have been a hermaphrodite (now referred to as intersex).
The servant likely came forward with this story hoping to be paid to keep Barry’s secret. However, the news that Barry had been assigned female at birth quickly spread in military circles. The story was first published in a Dublin newspaper on 14 August 1865: “upon his death was discovered to be a woman!” Within a week, the story had been picked up by multiple newspapers in Britain, and it then spread worldwide. At this point, some people who had known Barry claimed they had always suspected him to be a woman. Others claimed they had known, but kept it secret at Barry’s request.
How should we think and talk about Trans and Non-Binary people who lived well before those terms existed? This Secret Life of Canada episode we explores that question through the story of Dr. James Barry, a celebrated military surgeon. With the help of Dr. Aaron Devor, Chair of Transgender Studies at the University of Victoria, they also learn how Victoria B.C. ended up with the world's largest Transgender archives. For more information about the archives visit uvic.ca/transgenderarchives
Note: The Secret Life of Canada is hosted and written by Falen Johnson and Leah Simone Bowen and is a CBC original podcast independent of The Canadian Encyclopedia.
Debate about James Barry’s Identity
Historians and scholars have proposed various theories to explain the servant’s claim that Barry had been assigned female at birth. The most popular theory is that Barry was a woman who disguised herself as a man to pursue a medical education and military career at a time when women couldn’t. In this version of events, Barry is seen as a pioneer for women in medicine (see also Collection: Women in STEM). Barry earned an MD at a time when women were not allowed to study at university. Some scholars view Barry as the first woman to practise medicine professionally in Britain and Canada. (See also History of Medicine to 1950.)
Other scholars believe that Barry was intersex. The doctor who attended to him at this death was the first to suggest this idea. As no post-mortem examination was conducted and Barry was buried soon after his death, there is little evidence to support this theory. It is also possible that the servant was mistaken or lying, and that Barry was a cisgender male.
The theory that Barry was a transgender male has become popular, but that idea has been largely ignored by historians. Those arguing for this theory point out that Barry referred to himself with male pronouns (he/him). He also spent 50 years living as a man and asked that no one examine his body after death. When Barry was accused of sodomy (at that time, a crime) in Cape Town, he did not try to defend himself by arguing that he was assigned female at birth.
While there is no agreement on the exact nature of James Barry’s identity and there likely never will be, his achievements are clear and well documented. Barry’s work was central to reforming military medical standards in Canada and across the British Empire.