Tag Archives: Margaret Bulkley

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

Margaret Ann Bulkley:The extraordinary Doctor James Barry

Portrait of Dr James Barry painted 1813 – 1816. Image: Wikipedia.

In July 1865  a char woman named Sophia Bishop was asked to lay out the body of an eminent physician. The place was London and Doctor James Barry, who had attained the rank of Inspector General of Military Hospitals, the highest medical rank in the British Army, had died of dysentery. Sophia Bishop went about preparing the body and discovered that  Dr. James Barry was in fact a ‘whole woman’  and had stretch marks on her body indicating that she had even borne a child. Sophia did not disclose the information until after the funeral. The story grabbed the headlines for a time, but there was no conclusive evidence as there had not been a post-mortem.  Interestingly for someone of such a high military rank, and who had given 50 years of loyal and distinguished service, no obituary was ever published. Furthermore, the embarrassed British Military placed an embargo on Dr Barry’s military record for 100 years.

Dr. James Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley in County Cork in the closing years of the 18th century. Her mother was the sister of James Barry a renowned artist and member of the Royal Academy in London, her father Jeremiah was a grocer.  Margaret was a bright child who had expressed a wish to become a doctor, but at that time women were barred from medical school.

Margaret’s uncle James Barry had influential friends, one of whom was General Francisco de Miranda from Venezuela. Another friend, David Stuart Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan, was an avid supporter of the education of women. It is thought that General Miranda and Erskine were part of a group that hatched up a plan for Margaret to enter medical school disguised as a man. After qualifying she would be free to go to Venezuela to practice as a female doctor.

And so, James Miranda Stuart Barry entered the school of medicine at Edinburgh University in 1809 at the age of 14. The plan to go to Venezuela faltered when General Miranda was imprisoned by the Spanish, and ended with his death in prison in 1816.

Dr James Barry  at some stage decided to continue in a male role and joined the British Army medical corps.  He was posted to the Cape of Good Hope where he befriended the Governor, Lord Charles Somerset (1767 – 1831). It is possible that Somerset was aware of Dr Barry’s true identity as he too was a friend of  the Earl of Buchan.  The Governor set Barry up in private apartments at his residence.  Soon rumours began to circulate that Dr Barry and Lord Charles had an ‘unnaturally close’ relationship. The rumours of a homosexual liaison reached London and a royal commission was set up to investigate the scandal. Somerset returned to England and Barry was later exonerated.

Dr Barry  had a distinctive high-pitched voice, wore three-inch high inserts in his shoes to increase his height from 5 feet. He wore oversized clothing. He was known to be  prickly and difficult and was fiercely defensive if accused of being effeminate or if his high-pitched voice was commented upon.  He is known to have fought duels in defence of his honour, having been injured in one and reportedly shot an opponent at one time.

Dr. James Barry, 1862 with his dog Psyche and servant in Jamaica. Image Wikipedia

Professionally, Dr James Barry won great acclaim as a surgeon, entering the history books when he performed the first Caesarian section in Africa in which  both  mother and baby survived. The grateful parents named their child James Barry Munnik Hertzog in his honour. (JBM Hertzog later became  Prime Minister of South Africa from 1924 – 1939). Dr Barry also protested against bad medical practice and the ineffective and often toxic medicines sold in pharmacies. He waged war against poor hygiene standards. His radical treatment for leprosy and tropical diseases transformed the hospitals in which these diseases were treated.

In spite of insubordination and being court martialed, Dr Barry continued to rise up the army ranks.  As Inspector-General of Military Hospitals he spent some months in the Crimea, studying the appalling hospital death rates in Florence Nightingale’s  Scutari hospital. The ‘Lady of the Lamp’ described Barry as ”the most hardened creature I ever met throughout the Army”. It is believed however that this visit led to a radical reform of battlefield medicine.

Forced to retire in 1864, Barry did not receive the customary knighthood that a person of such reputation would have been granted. His years of service in many parts of the Empire were peppered with arrests, demotion, insubordination and unannounced leave, that overshadowed  his medical achievements.

Headstone of Dr James Barry Image www.findagrave.com/

Margaret Ann Bulkley lies buried in Kensal Green cemetery in London. Her gravestone is marked : Dr James Barry Inspector General of Hospitals, Died 26 July 1865, Aged 70 years. She was an extraordinary doctor, the first female graduate from a medical school in Britain who fooled the British Army and the rest of the world for 50 years.

See also my later post:Dr James Barry: A perfect female




The Age

Encyclopedia of World Biography


Filed under Ireland, Irish History