Dr. James Barry and Recognizing Trans Stories in the History of Science

August 17, 2021

Written by: Mily Mumford

Dr. James Barry was an Irish-born physician and surgeon who studied medicine in Edinburgh in the early 1800’s and went on to become the first surgeon in the (at the time) British Empire to successfully perform a cesarian section in 1826 (using modern Western surgical technique, the history of the cesarian section includes depictions throughout ancient Chinese, Hindu, Egyptian, and various European cultures).   He was also a vocal advocate for humane and improved care for prisoners, asylum patients and leprosy patients as well as increased sanitation and regulation of health professionals when in charge of South Africa’s health system as a colonial inspector. His career as an army surgeon and physician alone would make him a notable figure, however he became most famous for a personal matter he wished to keep secret - that he was assigned female at birth.

Source: F Yeah History

After his death, historians and biographers have fixated on this information, and for the most part have portrayed him solely as “a woman who dressed like a man” to pursue a medical career. However, it is likely (as we cannot sadly ask James himself) that he was in fact a trans man. His life, and the case of his representation in history, is important to the history of queer and trans stories throughout history, particularly in the history of western sciences.

An article in the Journal of Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh confirms through forensic analysis of letters many details of James Barry’s earlier life. He was born under the name Margaret Bulkley in Cork, in 1789 and the first records of James going by his new and permanent name was in late November 1809, at 20 years old. This was when he travelled to Edinburgh with his mother, who he generally referred to as his aunt, to begin medical studies. He never used the name Margaret Bulkley again, except in a few early letters to seemingly remind a few close family friends who knew of his name and gender change, who he was. One such letter was signed “James Barry” but with Miss Bulkley on the envelope.

Source: Them

Very few people knew of Barry’s origins; mostly a close circle of scholars who had encouraged his medical studies, including the Venezuelan General Francisco Miranda and David Steuart Erksine the Earl of Buchan - who was well connected in Edinburgh and helped Barry with professional connections there. An accomplished student, Barry took the required medical and surgical courses as well as additional ones in Botany and Midwifery. After passing his medical examinations, he became an army surgeon with a fifty-year career in British outposts around the globe. An article for Them Magazine discusses what occurred when Dr. Barry’s health began to deteriorate at the end of his career. Whenever he fell ill, he was described as maintaining the sole request that he not be physically examined, and that if he died, he should be buried in whatever clothes and bedclothes he died in and immediately buried. This wish was not followed, which led to his “outing” by a woman who attended Barry after his death when she (looking for a payout) told Barry’s physician. After he did not pay her for this “gossip,” she went public to the papers. Transgender scholars have maintained that because of both how Dr. James Barry lived as a man, and these explicit requests to be known only as a man after death (because of the harm to a physician’s job or title that would occur after death if “discovered”) that he should be “more accurately treated as a transgender man, living in a time before such language had been coined.”

Source: The National Archives Blog

In an article for the Science History Institute, Rebecca Ortenberg writes about the misrepresentation of Barry as a woman “masquerading” as a man. She compares the differences between Barry, who lived from early in his life to his death fully as a man, to cases where women (or at least people who at the time identified as women who also may have been trans) chose to dress as men and take male names temporarily for practical reasons to get jobs, education, or safe passage and travel. She discusses the case of Jeanne Baret, an 18th century botanist who joined her male partner and fellow botanist on a scientific expedition when he was hired on the ship as a “plant collector.” She dressed in men’s clothes, went by the name Jean, and became her partner’s “assistant” until the end of the job where she was discovered, and the two were kicked off the boat in Mauritius. The two got married there and she continued pursuing botany, but chose to lead the rest of her life in society “as a woman.” Ortenburg points out the difference between the two cases - one person hiding their identity and gender temporarily for practical professional and personal relationship reasons, and one who lived the majority of their life as one gender until their death. Often historians and biographers grapple with representing historical figures who “cross-dress,” not knowing the details if the person was trans or not and aiming to use the names and pronouns the person would have hopefully wanted to have represent them. However, Orterburg states, “in sharp contrast, Barry’s story presents no such ambiguity…Barry never returned to his previous name and never presented as a woman again, living both publicly and privately as a man, signing his letters as a gentleman, and using male pronouns to describe himself.”

Source: War History Online

Historian and archivist David Obermayer, who specializes in trans and queer history, has done extensive research on Dr. Barry and his life, as well as tactics historians and biographers have used to “feminize” him and rewrite him in history as a woman. Many articles and books deadname him, referring to him only as the name assigned to him at birth as opposed to the one he chose and lived his adult life under. Obermayer also complied an excellent list of resources about Barry’s life that discuss him, respectfully, as a trans man.

It is important, of course, to honour the many women who went unnoticed or unappreciated for their scientific work over the centuries, and there are vast numbers of them to celebrate. However, when writing about scientists and researchers who did not fit into cisgender boxes long before the language (in the western world) had developed for them to use, it is important to not erase their life, their wishes, and their legacy by trying to force them back into genders that clearly aren’t who they were. This is not reclaiming history, rather it is erasing the nuance and strength of historical queer and trans lives. Dr. James Barry wished to be remembered as he lived, as a man.