During the Regency, a young woman was actively engaged in transforming herself into a man, and then into a highly competent doctor. This determined woman then went on to live the rest of her life as a man. She joined the British Army, and eventually attained the second highest medical office in the service. As a respected doctor, she also lobbied for a number of medical reforms which saved or improved thousands of lives. She managed to hide her gender until her death, when it was revealed, against her wishes. There was great consternation when that fact became public and such a scandal that Army officials sealed all of their records regarding the doctor for a century.
When Margaret Anne Bulkley transformed herself into Dr. James Barry. . .
Sometime during the year 1789, in the city of Cork, which is located in southern Ireland, a daughter was born to Mary Ann Bulkley and her husband, Jeremiah. This little girl was christened Margaret Anne, and she was the second child in the Bulkley family, after her older brother, John. Margaret Anne’s father, Jeremiah, was a grocer and he also held a government position as one of the inspectors at the Weigh House on Merchant’s Quay, in Cork. Therefore, Jeremiah had a steady and reliable income by which to provide for his family. It seems that Jeremiah Bulkley may have had, or was thought to have had, ties to some of the people involved in the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Regardless of the facts, unfortunately, anti-Catholic sentiment was running so high during that time that Jeremiah Bulkley was dismissed from his government position at the Weigh House.
Jeremiah’s income from his grocery shop was not enough to support his family in the style to which they had become accustomed, particularly as his children were reaching the age when he would need to set them on the path to successful adulthood. He began to rely on credit in order to further his son’s fortunes. Jeremiah apprenticed young John to an attorney in Dublin, for which he paid £400 a year. Jeremiah was willing to spend the money, as he had high hopes that his son’s success would also result in the family’s long-term success. Initially, it seems that John Bulkley did apply himself in his new position in Dublin. But John was not a disciplined man and he was easily distracted by the pleasures available to young men in the Irish capital. John fell in love with a young woman, Miss Ward, and she also loved him. They wanted to marry, but her brothers, who controlled her inheritance from her deceased parents, refused to allow the union unless the groom could prove he could match his bride in fortune. Miss Ward would come into £1200 upon her marriage. Though Jeremiah was having problems managing his finances down in Cork, John convinced his father this marriage would give him the genteel connections which would further his career. Therefore, Jeremiah reluctantly deeded property he owned, worth £1200, to John. He also borrowed another £300 in cash to make a combined marriage settlement of £1500, which would enable his son to marry Miss Ward.
Unfortunately, Jeremiah Bulkley had used the property he deeded to his son as collateral on a large loan. When his creditors learned of the transfer, they demanded immediate payment of the loan. Jeremiah still had other property, and a substantial stock of goods, worth much more than his outstanding loan. He offered to turn any part of his remaining holdings over to his creditors as payment for his loan, but they refused and demanded cash. While Jeremiah was trying to negotiate a resolution to his financial problems, one of his wife’s brothers, Redmond Barry, a nearly destitute sailor, came to Cork. This feckless and bad-tempered brother essentially bullied his sister into taking him in. This additional strain on the family finances seems to have been more than Jeremiah could bear, and he was not able to resolve his financial problems. Soon thereafter, it seems that Jeremiah was arrested and incarcerated in the Marshalsea Prison, in Dublin, for debt.
Sadly, the intrusion of this irresponsible and indigent uncle into the Bulkley household had an even more devastating effect on young Margaret Ann. It is believed that her uncle Redmond raped her, perhaps more than once, and left her with child. Once Mary Ann learned what her brother had done to her daughter, she forced him from her home and forbade him ever to return. In order to try to protect her daughter’s reputation, as the time for the birth drew near, Mary Ann took her daughter away from Cork. When they returned, sometime in 1803, it was put about that the baby girl who accompanied them, Juliana, by name, was Mary Ann’s daughter, and thus was Margaret Anne’s sister.
Life for Mary Ann, Margaret Anne and little Juliana became very difficult without Jeremiah, as his creditors continued to hound them, threatening to evict them from their home in Cork. However, Mary Ann knew that the terms of the property transfer by Jeremiah to their son, John, upon his marriage, required John to use some of the income from that property to provide for his mother and sister, should that become necessary. Mary Ann wrote to John, asking for his help, only to learn that he had apparently sold the property and invested the proceeds. He refused to provide any financial assistance to his mother and sisters. The house in Cork had been part of Mary Ann’s marriage settlement, and she knew that it was still legally the property of one of her brothers. Fortunately, the legal owner was the only one of her five brothers who had been successful. This brother, James Barry, was the celebrated artist who had also become the Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy art school in London. If James would assert his legal rights, Mary Ann believed she and her family would be able to remain in their home in Cork.
In the early spring of 1804, in desperation, Mary Ann dictated a letter to her brother, James Barry, asking for his help in fending off the creditors and securing her home in Cork for the family. Margaret Anne actually wrote the letter, as she had much better penmanship than her mother, and had had the benefit of a little more education than her mother. Mary Ann knew her brother lived in London, and had become a member of the Royal Academy, but she did not know his address. Therefore, she had Margaret Anne address the letter simply "James Barry, Esq., RA & Professor of Painting to the Royal Academy." They folded the letter, sealed it and sent it on its way. There was nothing more to do but hope for the best as they awaited a reply.
April gave way to May and then June, yet no response came from James Barry. All the while, the situation in Cork was becoming increasingly dire. What Mary Ann did not know was that, due to a disagreement with other members, James Barry had been expelled from the Royal Academy a few years before. She could not know that the letter which had been sent to him there had taken a very long time to deliver. Sometime in June of 1804, Mary Ann decided she must go to London to find her brother and request his assistance. Baby Juliana was too young to make such a dangerous journey, so she would stay with a family member in Ireland. Mary Ann and Margaret Anne then set out for England. They sailed from Cork to Bristol, the most perilous part of the trip. Britain was once again at war with France and British ships were all targets for French privateers. Fortunately, the voyage was accomplished without incident. Once in Bristol, they took the stagecoach to London, a gruelling journey, but with less risk of attack. Once in London, they were soon able to ascertain James Barry’s direction. Mary Ann then had to decide how best to approach her brother.
She decided to sent Margaret Anne on her own, hoping that his protective instincts would be kindled by a young woman who reminded him of his own youth and the promise it held. Fortunately, Margaret Anne was a bold and determined woman, who was equal to the challenge of requesting assistance from an uncle she had never met. Mary Ann hired a maid to accompany her daughter and she, along with Margaret Anne, set out for Little Castle Street, where James Barry lived, at No. 36. Unfortunately, the artist had become a near recluse and somewhat paranoid. He had alienated many of his neighbors and even some of his friends. He believed that he had enemies among the members of the Royal Academy who were plotting with his neighbors to harass him. Though he allowed Margaret Anne into his home, he was unable to understand his sister’s request to deed the house in Cork to his niece, in order to safeguard it from Jeremiah Bulkley’s creditors. Even after repeated requests, he refused to sign the necessary documents. The Bulkley women eventually had to return to Ireland with no relief for their financial problems.
Sadly, Jeremiah’s creditors were very persistent and by the end of the year, they had succeeded in evicting the Bulkley family from their home in Cork. Since the title to the property was not clear, they could not sell it, but with the Bulkley women out, the grocery shop was closed and the family had no income. A friend of the Barry family in Cork took in the Bulkley family. Margaret Anne did try to find work, but she had been educated to become a wife and she had few skills which would enable her to get a job with a reasonable wage. Mary Ann could not work, since any income she might have had would have been seized by her husband’s creditors. The only hope seemed to be to try once again to convince James Barry to assert his rightful ownership of the house in Cork, and then place it in trust for his niece, which would protect it from Jeremiah’s creditors. In January of 1805, the two Bulkley women set out once again for London.
Margaret Anne once again paid a call on her uncle, only to find him even more reclusive and paranoid than he had been on her previous visit. However, he treated her with a bit more consideration, possibly because she admired his paintings. But he would not sign the documents which would have protected the house in Cork. Rather, he sent Mary Ann a note that he was giving her the right to sell the house, in his name, and keep the proceeds. His sister was exasperated by his response, knowing the proceeds for the sale of the house would be seized by her husband’s creditors. Mary Ann and her daughter remained in London for a few more weeks, hoping to bring James Barry around to their way of thinking. But he was apparently unable to understand what they wanted from him and they eventually had to return to Ireland. The Bulkley women did their best to manage while they tried to find other ways to survive.
The situation was to change within a year. In March of 1806, Mary Ann Bulkley received news that her brother, James Barry, had died the previous month, of a brief illness, in London. He had died without a will and Mary Ann learned that his heirs were being sought. Again, Mary Ann and Margaret Anne make the long journey to London. Though James Barry had had four brothers, as well as his sister, Mary Ann had had very little contact with any of them for years. She assumed she would be her brother’s sole heir. She was infuriated to discover that her brother, Redmond Barry, now working on one of the prison ships anchored in Portsmouth harbor, had also come forward as an heir to the estate of James Barry. Mary Ann consulted Daniel Reardon, an attorney practising in London. Reardon was from Cork, and Mary Ann may have been referred to him by friends in Cork. He represented her in her claim to the estate of the late James Barry, and it seems he may have also advanced her some funds against her expectations while they waited for the case to be settled. Though James Barry had become a slovenly, cantankerous and paranoid recluse, it turned out he still had a number of assets and his estate was estimated to be worth a few thousand pounds.
It seems likely that Reardon introduced his new clients to James Barry’s circle of friends. Among the people they met through him were General Francisco de Miranda, David Steuart Erskine, Earl of Buchan and Dr. Edward Freyer. These gentlemen were very impressed by Margaret Anne. She was bright, intelligent and very determined to better herself. They believed she could have a very successful future and began to hatch a plan to enable her to pursue her education. She had attended school for a time in Ireland, but she began to further her basic education once she and her mother settled in London. Initially, her mother thought her daughter would seek a position as a governess, but Margaret Anne had other ideas.
Margaret Anne was interested in a career in medicine and her uncle’s friends were each in a position to aid her. Dr. Freyer was a prominent physician, who regularly attended the Duke of Sussex, one of the royal princes, among his other important patients. He had attended medical school in Edinburgh, acknowledged to be one of the best in Europe, and was a proponent of women’s rights. The Earl of Buchan was a Scotsman, who had also attended the University of Edinburgh, where he still had significant influence. Buchan was active in politics and was a patron of the arts and sciences. He was also a strong champion of female advancement by education. Freyer and Buchan believed that they would be able to facilitate Margaret Anne’s acceptance into the medical school in Edinburgh, disguised as a young man. General Miranda was a revolutionary leader who hoped to free Venezuela from the control of Spain and become its ruler. He assured Margaret Anne that once she had attained her medical degree, he would support her practice as a female doctor in Venezuela. It took some time, but eventually, Mary Ann was persuaded to go along with this plan for her daughter’s education. Margaret Anne embarked on a course of studies, including the classics, which would prepare her for medical school, probably supervised by Dr. Freyer.
By the spring of 1807, James Barry’s estate was settled, divided equally between Mary Ann and Redmond. However, the contents of James Barry’s studio and library were yet to be sold. Mary Ann, knowing that Redmond was in need of cash, and feeling no respect or loyalty to the man who had violated her daughter, she offered him £300 for his share. He agreed and in April of 1807, the contents of James Barry’s studio and his library went on the auction block at Christie’s. By then, Barry’s reputation as an artist had faded, and the sale brought in a little over £1400, of which Mary Ann received £408. Added to the balance which she had received when the estate was settled, Mary Ann had just over £2075. Though it was not as much as Mary Ann had hoped, it was enough to support the Bulkley women in London while Margaret Anne pursued her studies.
Probably with the help of Dr. Freyer, along with her academic studies, Margaret Anne learned how she might best disguise herself as a man. She was a slight, petite woman, so she had less need to hide her breasts than she did to bulk up her shoulders and chest. It is known that she did wrap her chest, in order to broaden and deepen it to resemble that of a male. She also padded her shoulders to give the impression they were wider and more substantial than her slight feminine ones. She had shoes and boots made which added at least three inches to her natural height. It is not clear whether she used any kind of padding below the waist to enhance to her masculine form. Margaret Ann regularly practiced standing erect, with her shoulders back, as she had seen many men do. She also worked to try lower her voice to sound more like that of a man. The women could not risk their secret getting out, so they could not order bespoke garments for this young man. Instead, they scoured the second-hand clothing shops for good-quality appropriate garments in roughly the right size. Mary Ann privately made the necessary alterations to fit the garments for her daughter.
By the fall of 1809, it was time to take the next step. With recommendations from the Earl of Buchan and General Miranda, James Barry, the "nephew" of the artist, word had come that the young man was accepted into the Edinburgh medical school. Since the elder James Barry had never married, this younger James Barry had to be styled as his nephew, the son of Patrick, one of his four brothers, who was believed to be dead. In late November, Margaret Anne Bulkley rose early one morning, put off her feminine clothing and donned her male garments. Her mother took a pair of shears to her long reddish-blond locks and cut them very short, in the windswept Corinthian style favored by young men of the period. When she peered into the looking glass, Margaret Anne saw James Barry looking back at her. Little did she know that morning, Margaret Anne was gone forever. She would live out the remainder of her life as James Barry, never to wear a skirt or corset again. James Barry left London that same day, accompanied by Mary Ann Bulkley, a woman who would now be known as his "aunt," on a ship bound for Scotland. They arrived in the Scottish capital in mid-December, where they took lodgings. Mary Ann Bulkley found that it was very useful to be accompanied by a nephew who was a "young gentleman," since she was treated with greater respect and deference than she had ever been as the mother with a young daughter.
James Barry, in order to further obscure his gender, had shaved a few years off his age in his medical school application. This helped to explain his slim, boyish appearance, lack of facial hair and his rather high-pitched voice. A number of people in Edinburgh thought Barry was too young to have been admitted to the school, but no one he encountered gave any sign that they thought he was anything but a young man. Though he had arrived a month later than most of the other students, Barry applied himself with great diligence and did well in all his classes. Perhaps more importantly, he found that he thrived on the hard work and long hours. He wrote to Mr. Reardon in London that "I have my hands full of delightfull business," and "work from seven o’clock in the Morning till two the next." Since he intended to practice medicine for General Miranda in Venezuela, Barry took several courses in military surgery, along with an in-depth course in midwifery. He had been told that military doctors were often called on to attend the wives of officers and he wanted to be fully prepared. His intelligent mind responded eagerly to the challenges of his studies and he experienced great joy in learning.
Though he had spent the first two decades of his life as a woman, this newly minted James Barry was also exhilarated, and sometimes shocked, even offended, to be immersed in the freedom of life as a single young man. But no matter the challenges he faced, he persevered. Concerned that his true gender might be discovered, Barry made few close friends. It was also known that he lived with his aunt, and there were rumors that he was in fact even younger than people had originally thought, perhaps not even past puberty. Some taunted him about being a juvenile, but he steeled himself and ignored their remarks. Gradually, James became friendly with John Jobson, a fellow student who was also a small man. Jobson was very athletic, and soon took it upon himself to protect his young friend. Jobson tried to teach Barry to box, but James was never really able to do well in the ring. In particular, he was very reluctant to use his arms to fight with real power and instead, tended to keep them in front of his chest. Nevertheless, the young men remained friends.
James Barry continued to do well in his studies and was considered one of the best students by most of his professors. In the late summer of 1811, James was about to begin his final year of medical school. This promised to be his most challenging year. He would have to write a dissertation as part of the requirements for graduation, and it would have to be written in Latin. James had studied the classics while he was in London, but he had always preferred Greek to Latin and was concerned that his Latin was not up to snuff. His patron, the Earl of Buchan, invited James to his country home, Dryburgh Abbey, where he had the run of the large library in order to prepare his dissertation. The Earl of Buchan also arranged for his friend, Dr. Robert Anderson, an Edinburgh publisher and biographer, to review James Barry’s dissertation and help him perfect his Latin. James worked very hard, and he completed his dissertation on femoral hernia, a condition which was suffered primarily by women. With Dr. Anderson’s help, he translated it into perfect Latin and submitted it in good time. Then, another obstacle was put in his way.
Rumors that James Barry was just a boy had continued to swirl in Edinburgh throughout the years he studied there. But he had ignored them, and had been an exemplary student. Yet, it seems many members of the University Senate believed he was as young as twelve and they refused to allow him to take his final examinations. Fortunately, once again the Earl of Buchan came to the rescue. He pointed out to the members of the Senate that there were no rules or regulations which prohibited a boy of any age from sitting for his exams and being granted a medical degree, if he were successful. After conferring among themselves, the University Senators came to the conclusion that Lord Buchan was right, and they had no grounds to prevent James Barry from taking his exams or getting his degree. Therefore, in July of 1812, James Barry began the process of applying for and taking his exams. By the end of the month, he had completed all of his exams, his dissertation had been accepted and he was awarded his medical degree. Perhaps as a way to honor his most important patrons, this newly minted doctor called himself Dr. James Miranda Steuart Barry.
Though James Barry may have been looking forward to transforming himself once again into a woman, such was not to be. While he was taking his final exams in Edinburgh, General Miranda was betrayed by one of his men. He was arrested and handed over to Spanish royalists, who took him back to Spain. There, he was incarcerated in a prison in Cadiz, where he languished and died a few years later. There would be no support for Dr. Margaret Anne Bulkley to practice in Venezuela. Only as Dr. James Barry would this new doctor be able to make use of all those hard-won medical skills. Dr. Barry and his "aunt" left Edinburgh that autumn, arriving in London in early November of 1812. They found lodgings in Southwark, as far from their old lodgings as possible, not wanting to encounter anyone they had once known who might see a resemblance between James Barry and Margaret Anne Bulkley. Young Dr. Barry enrolled in courses in anatomy and surgery at Guy’s Hospital, where he could study with the noted surgeon, Astley Cooper. His inheritance from the elder James Barry had been spent on his medical studies in Edinburgh and he had to borrow money to pay the fees. However, in addition to more advanced studies, this would allow Dr. Barry to treat a host of patients with a plethora of ailments. James continued on with his studies at Guy’s Hospital until April of 1813. By then, his debts and those of his mother had to be repaid.
A skilled doctor with influential patrons could make a good living in Regency London. However, the costs of setting up a practice in London were very high, and Dr. Barry could not afford it. In addition, he had studied military medicine, intending to serve in Miranda’s army and he had always longed to be a soldier. Dr. James Barry decided he would join the British Army and enlisted, in June of 1813, at the offices of the Army Medical Board. His military career began in Britain, on 6 July 1813, where he initially worked as a hospital assistant. His first commander thought he was underage and it was only with the assistance of Lord Buchan that Dr. Barry was able to keep his first military post. However, within the year, he was promoted to the rank of Assistant Staff Surgeon, which was equivalent to the rank of lieutenant. Dr. Barry served in Britain until the spring of 1815, when the Allied forces began massing their troops in Belgium to deal with the return of Napoleon Bonaparte. He then traveled to Brussels as part of the British forces and in mid-June, he, like most of the other medical personnel in the British Army, traveled with the army to Waterloo. Dr. James Barry was working in one of the British field hospitals throughout the day of the Battle of Waterloo.
With the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, many of the soldiers in the British Army were discharged from service. But even in peacetime, the Army needed doctors and Dr. James Barry remained in the service after Waterloo. He returned to England late in 1815, but the following year, he had the opportunity to transfer to a British military post in Cape Town, South Africa. While there, he became friendly with governor of the Cape Colony, Lord Charles Somerset, the second son of the Duke of Beaufort. The two became such good friends that Lord Charles offered Dr. Barry a set of rooms in the Governor’s residence. Rumors began to spread about the true nature of their relationship and eventually an anonymous accuser claimed that Lord Charles was "buggering Dr. Barry." This accusation resulted in a commission which investigated the two men, but both were exonerated. At least one of Barry’s biographers believes he may have revealed his true identity and gender to Lord Charles and the two had an affair. What is known is that Dr. Barry remained in Cape Town until late in 1826, the same year Lord Charles Somerset left South Africa.
After the investigation in Cape Town, in order to maintain, and perhaps bolster, the illusion that he was a man, Dr. Barry developed a brash masculine personality and was known for having a hot, quick temper. He even developed a reputation as a ladies’ man, though it was said he never took advantage of any of his lady friends and was thought by all to be a true gentleman. At one point, when a man suggested he was effeminate, Barry challenged the man to a duel, and coolly shot him in the arm while he remained unscathed. Few such suggestions were ever made to him again. Despite his outward demeanor, Dr. Barry had a calm and considerate beside manner which instilled confidence and set his patients at ease. He was a skilled surgeon who never refused to treat a patient, caring for soldiers and civilians, rich and poor, colonists and slaves alike. While still in Cape Town, in July of 1826, Dr. Barry performed the first successful cesarean section, delivering a healthy baby boy and saving the life of the mother. Dr. Barry was also a life-long champion of sanitary and hygienic conditions in military hospitals. He routinely exposed mismanagement in military hospitals, asylums and barracks and demanded the highest standards of care. He is even reported to have railed at Florence Nightingale regarding the conditions in the hospital in the Crimea.
After he left Cape Town, Dr. Barry remained in the army and traveled throughout the world, working to improve conditions in British Army hospitals wherever he went. He was even commended by the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, the Duke of Wellington, for his efforts. Dr. Barry eventually rose to the rank of Inspector General in charge of military hospitals, a rank equal to that of a Brigadier General. In fact, this was the second highest position in the British Army. In 1859, while serving in Canada, Dr. Barry was struck by influenza, which then developed into bronchitis. By the end of the year, he was returned to Britain, where he was discharged from the army due to his respiratory illness. In the summer of 1865, Dr. James Barry contracted dysentery and died, in London, on 25 July 1865. Dr. Barry had stated that he wished to be buried in the clothing in which he died, and wanted no funeral. His wishes were not respected and his maid brought in a charwoman to wash the body and lay it out for burial. Not only was this woman shocked to discover the doctor was a female, but that she also had stretch marks on her abdomen which indicated she had given birth at least once in her life. When the charwoman was not paid for her work, she went to Dr. Barry’s physician and demanded payment for keeping the secret. The doctor refused to be blackmailed and the woman took her story to the press. The public was shocked to learn this renowned and respected doctor, who had served in the British Army for over forty years, was actually a woman. Seeking to suppress the scandal, the British Army sealed all records relating to Dr. James Barry for a hundred years.
Dear Regency Authors, the historical figure we know today as Dr. James Barry emerged during the Regency. The doctor, or a fictional version of "him," might make an interesting character for a romance set during that period. Certainly, Dr. Barry’s success in masquerading as a man for over fifty years proves that it can be done. And there are many details of the doctor’s life which might serve to add realism to a story of a woman impersonating a man during our favorite period. In addition, Dr. Barry’s determination and perseverance in completing medical school and becoming a talented surgeon also proves that a woman was just as capable as a man, if she chooses to apply herself. How might Dr. Barry’s story inspire you?