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Queer History: Dr James Barry - Portrait in back circle on purple background
November 14, 2021
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Doctor James Barry was a Victorian era doctor, military surgeon, and a public health reformer. He was also assigned female at birth. 


Born in Ireland in around 1790, and left a small fortune from the artist James Barry, their transition began. He adopted the artists name and some of his patrons, moving to Edinburgh to become a medical student. Explaining away his small size and lack of beard by claiming to be much younger worked until he came to the end of his degree. Concerned that he was still a child, it took the intervention of some of these adopted patrons and the powerful friends that he was good at making to force the university to allow him to sit the final exams. He therefore obtained a medical degree at the actual age of 22, despite the university thinking he was much younger. 


After training as a surgeon, he joined the army.

A 12-year career in the army that saw him deploy all over, but especially to the Cape colony. He rose to the rank of Inspector General, taking charge of all of the military medical matters there. His military career also saw him getting the reputation of having a foul temper. He is known to have challenged at least one captain in the army to a duel and to have shouted at Florence Nightingale about what she was wearing in the sun. 


During this time at the Cape many biographers suspect that Barry and Lord Charles Somerset, the Governor of the Cape colony, had an affair and that Somerset was one of the very few people who knew that Barry was assigned female at birth. Barry is also known to have performed one of the first successful caesareans, enabled numerous sanitary reforms in his medical treatment and was very loud in criticising army and prison management about hygiene. 


On his death in 1865 

Barry’s biological sex was revealed, which started a queue of people asserting that they had known all along and a somewhat frenzy of people trying to determine who the real doctor Barry was and what had led them to live with such a “lie”. 


In a way, there are two aspects of Barry’s life that have some relevance now.

The first would be that quite simply he would have held helped in mainstreaming the caesarean section, which has remained very important in enabling LGBT and straight people alike to have families. The second aspects, however, is not a positive reflection. The frenzy that the revelation of biological sex caused is still sadly seen in general transphobia and the media obsession with it. The fact that such things still need to be kept secret over 150 years later suggest that we haven’t really made any progress at all. The quote from the doctor that signed the death certificate seems very relevant, in that it was “none of my business” whether Barry was male or female. 

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