Dr James Barry: ‘A perfect female’

Dr James Barry with servant and dog. Image wikimedia.commons

Since posting the story of  Margaret Ann Bulkley: The extraordinary Doctor James Barry, I have had many requests for further detail on the fascinating story of  the girl who masqueraded as a man for almost her entire life and rose to the highest medical rank in the British Army.

To recap: As Dr James Barry was being laid out for burial, the maid discovered that ‘he’ was ‘a perfect female’. This startling fact was not revealed until after the funeral. The body was not exhumed to confirm the allegation and the controversy has continued for almost 150 years. However, in recent years new research has helped to confirm the story that Dr James Barry, Inspector General in the British Army,  and Margaret Ann Bulkley are the same person.

Hercules Michael du Preez, himself  a doctor, was impressed by the work of  Dr. James Barry in his country, South Africa. Dr Barry’s reforms included better food and healthcare for lepers and prisoners and ordinary citizens as well as soldiers. Dr du Preez, determined to try to unravel the mystery of Dr. Barry, concentrated not only on military records, but on papers of the uncle, James Barry, RHA (1741-1806) who was a well-known figure and artist. This research into the early life of Margaret Ann Bulkley revealed a  great deal about her that has added interesting facts to the extraordinary story.

Among the private papers of James Barry, du Preez discovered that on 11 April 1804, Margaret  penned  a letter on behalf of her mother  to her Uncle James in which she wrote: ‘My mother is not able to write legible on account of a tremor in her hand, desired me to write for her‘.

So,who was Margaret Bulkley? Margaret’s mother Mary Ann Barry, married Jeremiah Bulkley in 1782. They lived on Merchant’s Quay in Cork City. Jeremiah held a government post in the Weigh House in  Cork, and he was also a grocer. They had three children, – a son John, daughter Margaret and another younger daughter, whose name we do not know. As a result of the recklessness of the elder child John, Jeremiah ended up in  the Debtor’s Prison  in Dublin. Margaret and her mother Mary Ann were left destitute, and their only hope lay with Margaret’s uncle, James Barry, her mother’s brother, who was a member of the Royal Academy and who lived in London. Hence the letter, an example of  Margaret’s handwriting from her early teens.

Du Preez discovered 26  letters in all sent by Margaret Bulkley and James Barry. Examples of the handwriting were examined by Alison Reboul, a professional handwriting analyst and document examiner. Her conclusion was that all the documents were almost definitely written by one person.

Of particular interest is a letter written to Daniel Reardon, the family legal adviser. Reardon was noted for keeping meticulous records and had a habit of recording the name of the sender and the date on the outside of all letters received by him.  On a letter  dated 14 December, postmarked December 18, 1809  and signed ‘James Barry’, Mr Reardon recorded: Miss Bulkley 14 December. Further evidence that Margaret Bulkley and James Barry were indeed one and the same person.

More fascinating details from the research undertaken by Dr du Preez , including extracts from and pictures of the letters, can be read here.


Dr James Barry: The early years revealed by Hercules Michael du Preez, MB ChB, FRCS published by the South African Medical Journal, January 2008,No.1

Dr James Barry: Military man – or woman? by  Kathleen M Smith published in

Canadian Medical Journal April 1982, Vol 126 

Cork Archives



Filed under Family History, Irish History

14 responses to “Dr James Barry: ‘A perfect female’

  1. A fascinating story, told so well… thank you.

  2. J. G. Burdette

    Here in the US there is a story similar to this one. An Irish Immigrant by the name of Jennie Irene Hodgers, posed as a man and joined the Union Army during the Civil War. She retained her masquerade as a man throughout the rest of her life, having only been discovered not long before her death. In other accounts that I’ve read, the female soldiers usually returned to the type of lives they had led before their masquerades. I’ve always been curious why Hodgers didn’t. Interesting post.

    • “In other accounts that I’ve read, the female soldiers usually returned to the type of lives they had led before their masquerades. I’ve always been curious why Hodgers didn’t.”

      Almost every example of women masquerading as men during the CW is a case where they adopted that disguise specifically for those circumstances — to go and fight, or to gather intelligence, or follow a lover into the army. And so, when the war ended or they were found out, it was easy enough to drop the masquerade and return to their old identity.

      Hodgers/Cashier is a different case, in my view, because it appears that Hodgers took on a male identity sometime before enlisting, and continued for fifty years afterward. Service in the Union army in the CW was part of Albert Cashier’s experience, not the reason for Albert Cashier’s existence. Albert Cashier wasn’t a disguise; it was that person’s identity. That’s why in my profile I used the name Cashier and the male pronoun “he,” because it seems very clear to me that that’s the person’s identity in every way that mattered.

      • It is indeed a particularly fascinating story and I agree that as Albert Cashier is the preferred identity its use is the best memorial to this amazing person. Who knows why these women did this …I wonder if anyone ever asked Albert why? In the case of Margaret Ann Bulkley,it may well be that gender inequality and a burning desire to become a doctor steered her in that direction.
        Thank you for dropping by!

  3. J. G. Burdette

    Rats! I didn’t see the next post on Hodgers. Silly me.

  4. It is fascinating indeed as to why people do these things. I think in Margaret Bulkey’s case she simply wanted to practice medicine – initially at any rate and her secret was only discovered after her death. As for the Jennie Hodgers story (reposted on my blog from irishamericancivilwar.com ) her gender was revealed while she was still alive. There have been several books written about her that are referenced in that post- surely someone thought to ask her?! See the book list here: http://irishamericancivilwar.com/2011/08/17/jennie-hodgers-the-irishwoman-who-fought-as-a-man-in-the-union-army/
    Thank you for your comment!

  5. Jennie Hodgers cottage has been reconstructed recently in Saunemin
    whare she lived after the Civil War..I know this, because I was the carpenter
    who put it up…

  6. Hi,

    Very interesting to read about dr. Barry. Do you have any idea what he may have thought about women becoming doctors or if he expressed any open support of women studying medicine or the women’s movement (voting, equal rights). Many thanks for writing about James Barry. I will now order some biographies on him.

    • Hi. I do not have any information at all about such views, but how interesting it would be to discover some! These were different times and I suppose that we must view this remarkable story in the context of the time in which it was played out.
      Thank you so much for dropping by!

  7. Pingback: Margaret Ann Bulkley:The extraordinary Doctor James Barry | A SILVER VOICE FROM IRELAND

  8. barbie

    I believe Dr. James Barry was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery London.

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