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