1865-07-15

JAMES MIRANDA BARRY, British surgeon, born (d: 1865); James Miranda Barry was a woman. What’s more, she was a woman who spent her entire life disguised as a man. For over forty years, she was an officer and a surgeon in the British Army and enjoyed a highly distinguished career without arousing the suspicion of either her superiors or her patients.

Details of his early life are unclear, but Barry was female-assigned at birth and was most probably born Margaret Ann Bulkley in 1789. She apparently assumed a male identity prior to embarking on a voyage to Edinburgh in 1809. After arriving, James Barry began studies at the University of Edinburgh, qualifying for a Medical  Doctorate degree in 1812. Moving to London he successfully passed the examination of the Royal College of Surgeons of England.

Much of his medical career was spent in South Africa, Jamaica, Canada and other outposts of the British Empire. If anything appeared odd about him to her many army colleagues it was his slight stature (he was five feet tall), but he eventually compensated for this with his own invention of telescoping false heels, antedating Adler elevator shows by more than a century.

Only the South African natives were sufficiently observant to notice another device he adopted to pass himself off as male. Because of the elaborately padded shoulders that he affected the natives called him “the Kapok Doktor.”

Dr. Barry, over the years, developed a reputation as quite a rake and was known to “flirt openly” at balls with “the best-looking women in the room.” He apparently did more than flirt, as well. He carried on an affair with a Mrs. Fenton, although it is not known at what point, if ever, Mrs. Fenton learned that her lover was anatomically female. Still, Dr. Barry’s reputation as an army officer was never sullied since he was known as “a perfect gentleman who did not swear in the presence of women.”

When he died at 70, he would have gone to his grave with his secret unknown had it not been for a charwoman who was preparing the body of the Major General for burial. It must have been quite the surprise. Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris has made a film based on Barry’s life, entitled Heaven and Earth, which is set in 1825 in the Cape. The film tells of a secret love affair between Barry and Lord Charles Somerset. Barry has previously been played by Anna Massey in an episode of the BBC drama-documentary A Skirt Through History.