Friday, 23 September 2011

James Barry: 'A gentleman every inch...'

Dr James Barry died on the 25 of July 1865 with a considerable reputation that he had built across his life and career.
An innovator in the field of medicine, his tireless efforts to improve the diet and hygiene of the patients he dealt with, sometimes among the poorest residents of some of the most distant corners of the world, caused him no end of conflict with his peers and superiors.
Barry developed a name as an excellent doctor and surgeon but one who refused to accept the limitations of the resources and accepted wisdom of his profession.
The year of his birth is uncertain, and the earliest years of his life shrouded in mystery, but James Barry began his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh in 1809.
Once qualified he was commissioned as a Hospital Assistant in the British Army beginning his career in Chelsea and later Plymouth before being posted overseas where he spent the majority of his life.
He served initially in India and then in Cape Town, South Africa where he made a name for himself by performing one of the first caesarean sections where both mother and baby survived the procedure. The grateful parents named their son James Barry Munnick and the tradition of the name was passed through the generations, counting among their number General James Barry Munnick Hertzog, Prime Minister of South Africa from 1924 to 1939.
The tradition has continued to this day and the current holder of the name is, fittingly, a doctor.
Barry's renown as a surgeon was only matched by his reputation as a firm advocate for improved hygiene and conditions in the hospitals he worked in.
His career took him from Mauritius to Canada with periods in Trinidad and Tobago, St Helena, Malta, Corfu, the Crimea and Jamaica.
All of these postings saw Barry argue with his superiors over the state of the hospitals and the standard of the staff working in them.
This eventually came to a head in St Helena where Barry, frustrated at the lack of response to his concerns by the Commissariat on the island, wrote a letter to the Secretary of War outlining his issues. He was immediately placed under house arrest and accused of 'behaviour unbecoming to an officer and a gentleman.'
Barry described it as:

'...probably the first instance of an officer being brought to trial for the performance of his duty...'

The charges were eventually dropped but the reputation as an agitator would follow Barry through his life.
It would be easy to imagine then that Barry would find a kindred spirit in Florence Nightingale, his contemporary and fellow advocate for improved conditions in medical institutions.
That would, however, ignore Barry's near-superhuman determination to clash with any prominent figure around him...
Rather than comparing notes and finding common ground Barry took the one encounter he had with Nightingale to berate her over a difference of medical opinion.
Nightingale remembered the incident vividly:

'I never had such a blackguard rating in my life- I who have had more than any woman- than from Barry sitting on his horse while I was crossing the hospital square with only my cap on in the sun. He kept me standing in the midst of a crowd of soldiers servants and camp followers, every one of whom behaved like a gentleman during the scolding I received, while he behaved like a brute.'

She later described Barry as:

'The most hardened creature I ever met throughout the army...'

Barry retired in 1864, against his wishes, and died in 1865.
Upon his death, with his body being prepared for burial, an incredible discovery was made.
Dr. James Barry was a woman.
Moreover, further examination determined that at some point she had given birth.
This revelation stunned most of the people who had known Barry but many spoke up now with their long-standing suspicions. Rumours of an affair with the Governor of Cape Town resurfaced and people saw a new set of motives in Barry's nomadic career with her needing to be constantly moving before rumours followed or she was too closely observed.
This makes Dr. James Barry the first Briton who was assigned female at birth to become a medical doctor.
But there is no formal recognition of this achievement.
Upon this revelation a series of newspaper editorials, rather than supporting the idea that a woman could become a doctor, and in this case an exceptional surgeon, played up the idea that the standards of medical training and examination had slipped to such a low standard that even a woman could slip through.
Although now believed to have been born Margaret Ann Bulkley at the time of her death the identity of this remarkable woman was unknown.
Her gravestone is made out in the name of 'James Barry' and, despite the petty gripes of many at the time of her death, contains a full listing of her qualifications and military rank...

1 comment:

  1. The writer Patricia Duncker wrote a book about Barry: