James Barry

GIVEN his dark secret, the 19th-century surgeon James Barry might have been expected to lead a quite life, avoiding confrontation at all costs, says Frank McNally

Instead, he was a thoroughly quarrelsome individual. His bad temper led him into at least one pistol duel. On another occasion, threatened with jail, he publicly regretted not having his sword, so that could cut off the judge's ears. One of many people he insulted, Florence Nightingale declared him the worst "blackguard" she had ever met.

Far from seeking a quiet life as a doctor, Barry made his career in the British army, serving at Waterloo and in the Crimea. His options were limited, because of the secret. But the army was a risky choice for someone in his unique situation.

Even so, he made it to the very top of his discipline - inspector general of military hospitals - before dysentery killed him in 1865; at which point he was finally discovered to be a woman.

At least that was the verdict of Sophia Bishop, the charwoman who prepared his body for burial. There was no post-mortem. And for a century afterwards, the army - less than thrilled at the turn of events - discouraged attempts to investigate.

Among the details to emerge, despite this, was that Barry's manservant had been required to deliver six fresh towels to his master every morning - part of the surgeon's life-long subterfuge to hide the shape of her body. But she could hide only so much. One man who observed Dr Barry at work, the Earl of Albermarle, summed him up thus: "The most skilful of physicians, and the most wayward of men; in appearance, a beardless lad, with an unmistakeably Scotch type of countenance, reddish hair and high cheekbones. There is a certain effeminacy in his manner, which he is always striving to overcome." The same earl was later said to be the only man who knew Barry's true identity. But other than that she was "the illegitimate granddaughter of a Scotch girl", he never revealed it.

That the brilliant surgeon was Scottish was long taken for granted, because it was as a medical student in the University of Edinburgh he first appeared, apparently from nowhere, in 1809 - a time when women could not study medicine. Since the 1950s, however, an alternative theory has grown: that Barry was Irish. More particularly, s/he was thought to have been closely related to the Irish painter of the same name. And a report in the latest issue of New Scientist appears to have clinched both arguments.

According to the magazine, James Barry the surgeon was really Margaret Ann Bulkley, the daughter of a Cork grocer and of the sister of James Barry the artist.

The story goes that Jeremiah Bulkley was jailed for debt in 1803, leaving his wife and young daughter destitute. At which point Mrs Bulkley turned for help to her famous brother, by then professor of painting at London's Royal Academy.

Barry and his circle were enthusiasts for women's education. Even after he died in 1806, his money continued a fund Margaret's schooling. But at some point a bolder conspiracy evolved, in which two of the painters' friends - a physician and a military man - were central.

The plot was that young Miss Bulkley would reinvent herself as a male and study medicine. Edinburgh was chosen, because the Bulkleys were unknown there. And so it was that James Barry the medical student was born - part of the deception's price being that mother and daughter had to isolate themselves from friends and family.

The New Scientiststory is the result of detective work by Michael Du Preez, a retired doctor in South Africa, where Barry the surgeon remains famous for - among other things - carrying out the continent's first recorded Caesarean section. Frustrated by army records and the other obvious sources on Barry the surgeon, Du Preez targeted the correspondence of Barry the artist instead, and hit paydirt.

He found two-dozen letters, deemed by experts to have been written by the same hand, some signed "Margaret Bulkley" and some "James Barry". On one of the Barry letters, the helpful family solicitor - who always recorded the sender's name on the envelope - has even written "Miss Bulkley".

Furthermore, Du Preez thinks he has identified the moment of the sex change - in a letter written from Edinburgh after Margaret Bulkley and her mother had travelled there by boat. "It has been very usefull [sic] for Mrs Bulkley (my aunt) to have a gentleman to take care of her on board ship and to have one in a strange country," writes James Barry, the born-again medical student.

Since rumours of the surgeon's sexual identity first emerged, posthumously, some have argued that he may just have been hermaphroditic, possessing both male and female characteristics. Or that he had a testosterone-suppressing condition, while being essentially a man. Du Preez accepts he may not have ended the debate.

"People will probably still argue about this until someone eventually exhumes her remains, tests her chromosomes and settles the argument for good," he says.

But if it was a gender cover-up, it was a good one. Having appeared out of nowhere, James Barry might have taken his secret to the grave had not the dysentery plague of 1865 caught him by surprise. And almost a century and a half later, the world is still unwrapping the layers under which he hid his true self.

• fmcnally@irish-times.ie

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