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Archive for December, 2007

By the time Dr. James Miranda Barry reached Canada in 1858, he was already a legend in medical and military circles.

Barry had a reputation for being a genius as a surgeon. He had performed the first successful Caesarean section by a British doctor — only the sixth known successful Caesarean by a European. He also understood the importance of sanitation long before European medicine realized how infection worked. In an age when bloodletting by leeches and freezing the patient were common cures, Barry was an apostle of scientific medicine. In an era that thought that bathing, fresh air, and fresh food were harmful to the sick, he prescribed these things. The mortality rate dropped instantly in any hospital he was in charge of.

He was also considered a man of high and progressive ideals – he fought tirelessly for the right to medical treatment for women, for blacks, and for the poor. When he was in charge of prison inspection in South Africa, he had infuriated white wardens by asking black prisoners directly about the conditions of their cells and their treatment at the hands of the prison keepers. He fought for a better life for the lepers in the Hemel en Aarde leper colony — a colony which he had helped to found.

In spite of his genius and his compassion, however, it was always difficult to find Barry a posting because he had such a complex personality. At the best of times, he was cold, aloof, and eccentric. He loved to cause a scandal, and told wild stories of his adventure. He barely escaped courts martial several times for his rudeness to superiors, and once for going absent without leave.

His appearance, too, people noted as odd. He was tiny and androgynous, and the Count Emmanuel de las Casas admitted he’d mistaken Barry for a child when he’d met him.

Before Barry had reached Canada, he’d mellowed somewhat. Sickness and old age had taken its toll, and he was now less likely now to fling insults in every direction. He was still considered an eccentric. He carried a small dog named Psyche wherever he went, and took a pet goat with him on voyages for fresh milk. He was a vegetarian long before a vegetarian diet was popular. Some attributed his shortness and his strange appearance to this diet.

Mostly, though, he was known during his stay in Canada for his sanitation reforms in military housing, which greatly improved the lives of soldiers here.

Barry’s Life

James Miranda Barry seemed to appear out of nowhere in 1809, when he applied to the prestigious medical school at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He arrived in the company of an Irish woman named Mary Anne Bulkley, whom he usually introduced as his aunt, but once told a friend was his mother. Bulkley was sister to a famous painter named James Barry, and James Miranda Barry seemed to have inherited his name.

Barry’s entrance into the university was eased by a number of very powerful protectors. One of these was Francisco Miranda – grandfather of South America’s democratic revolutions and first president of Venezuela. Another was the progressive lord David Steuart Erskine, Lord Buchan, who was a firm believer in modern ideas like equal education for women.

Barry earned a reputation as something of a prodigy – his age was uncertain, but he passed his exams and thesis either in his late teens or early twenties. He then studied medicine in London under the greatest surgeons of the age.

He joined the military, and was posted to South Africa, where he set about reforming the medical and prison systems. He made a lot of enemies in the process of trying to protect the poor and the marginalized from the unscrupulous who saw medicine only as an opportunity for profit, and were importing poisonous “patent medicines.”

Barry also had a lot of sway with the colony’s governor, whose daughter’s life he’d saved. Rumours persisted about the androgynous Barry’s sexuality, and his relationship with the governor – one of his enemies, Bishop Burnett, said that Barry “is, has been and if rumour speaks true, will remain single.”

In 1824, a placard was hung on a Cape Town bridge declaring that “Lord Charles [had been caught] buggering Dr. Barry.” Later, Barry was always seen in the presence of a black man whose name is unknown, and who was officially entered on records as his “servant” but who may have been his lover.

Barry was moved from military posting to military posting, almost always to tropical islands – Mauritius, St-Helena, Jamaica, the Windward and Leeward Islands in the Caribbean, and Corfu. In each of these places, he implemented his usual far-reaching and ahead-of-their-time social and medical reforms.

He finally arrived in Canada long enough to greatly improve the lives of soldiers. Here he advocated a much more healthy diet for them, kitchens to prepare fresh food, and separate quarters for the married soldiers.

Barry was quite ill when he reached Canada, and after years of living in the tropics the climate didn’t agree with him. Finally, his doctor had to report to military authorities that Barry was now too sick to do his job, and Barry was fired a few months before he qualified for a full pension. He returned to Britain and tried to get his job back, but was unsuccessful.

The doctor spent his last days in an apartment in London, where he was treated by a military staff surgeon named McKinnon. Barry died in 1865. He had no will, but every time he had been close to death, he’d left very careful instructions about the disposal of his body. He had requested that no examination of it be made, and that be buried in whatever clothes he’d died in.

Apparently, the servant who’d prepared him for burial – a woman named Sophia Bishop – didn’t heed these instructions. When she wasn’t paid extra for her services as an undertaker by the family that employed her, Bishop went to the agents in charge of Barry’s estate. She demanded to be paid out what little property Barry had had at death.

Desperate for money, Bishop made the agency call Dr. McKinnon, Barry’s last doctor. She threatened him with the revealing of Barry’s secret: Bishop claimed that Dr. Barry was a “perfect woman,” and further added there were stretch marks that proved that “she” had given birth,

When Bishop wasn’t paid, she disappeared. Three weeks after Barry had died, her version began appearing in the popular press. The declaration that one of the military’s highest-ranking doctors was actually a woman became a gossip press piece throughout the British Empire.

Pretty soon, there was no shortage of people who’d met Barry saying that “they knew it all along.” Probably not surprisingly, only people who’d barely known Barry claimed to have “known it all along.” His close friends generally said that they’d had no idea.

Pretty soon, two competing myths about Barry had been framed, and around them was built a series of half-truths and complete fabrications. The first myth was that Barry was a woman who’d fallen in love with a military man, and cross-dressed in pursuit of him. The second story was that Barry was an early feminist, taking the only possible route “she” could to a medical career.

The first myth led to a series of truly awful novels that claimed to be exposés – perhaps the worst of these is Olga Racster and Jessica Groves’ nauseating Dr. James Barry: Her Secret Story. In this piece of High Edwardian saccharine, Dr. Barry dies with “her” lover’s name on “her” lips – “John…this…must…be…death!”

As times changed, though, this myth gave way to the one that was less popular in the 19th century: that James Barry was a feminist who’d reinvented “herself” as male only to claim a man’s privileges. This is central to Canadian Kit Brennan’s version of the story in her play, A Tiger’s Heart.

Interest has renewed in Barry recently, and now there are an increasing number of Barry scholars, and Barry-inspired art. Interestingly, Barry’s secret – not his skills as a doctor and his work as a humanitarian – has cemented his place in history.

However, there is still one question that has never really been answered: What was Barry’s secret, anyway?

The Problem of Barry’s Secret

Ultimately, the first myth about Barry’s secret is that we know what that secret was.

Immediately after the scandal broke, there was confusion. Dr. McKinnon was contacted by the man in charge of issuing the death certificate, Registrar General G. Graham, asking what Barry’s sex was. Dr. McKinnon — who’d also known Barry years before — replied that he thought it was “none of his business,” but that personally he’d always believed Barry was a “hermaphrodite,” what we now call intersexed. Barry’s Canadian doctor admitted that he’d assumed Barry was physically male, and told this to his medical students afterwards in lectures at McGill as a cautionary tale to warn them to make a thorough examination of all their patients.

The military, meanwhile, kept to the firm line that the rumours were just gossip.

Part of the myth that grew up around Barry was that an autopsy done after his death proved he was female beyond a doubt. Actually, no such autopsy was ever done – as Canadian doctor Sir William Osler discovered when he tried to dig up the facts of the story. Barry requested that his body remain unexamined after death, and a contagious disease had finally finished him off so they’d buried him quickly.

The story that Barry was a woman came from Sophia Bishop only. No one else reputed to have seen Barry naked would vouch for it. Barry was very androgynous, and often sexually connected with men (such as Lord Somerset), and this was considered enough evidence to corroborate the story.

Few now believe that Barry was simply male-bodied — though if he was, the sodomy story alone would have been enough to earn him a place in this queer history. It seems fairly clear that he was keeping some sort of a secret related to his body. Although a military man, he never changed his clothes in front of his fellow soldiers. He never wanted his body to be examined. He always lived alone except for his servant, never married, and avoided physical activities at school (such as boxing) that might expose his body to view.

Furthermore, recent research has shown (in spite of lurid Victorian romances that claimed he was the illegitimate child of nobility) that he was almost certainly Mary Anne Bulkley’s child.

Mrs. Bulkley had one son (named John) and two daughters. Her older daughter, Margaret Bulkley, evaporated from history without a trace four years before Mrs. Bulkley accompanies James Barry to Edinburgh. More convincingly, we have samples of Margaret Bulkley’s and James Barry’s handwriting, and they match. As well, Margaret vanishes at the age of fifteen, and Barry appears four years later in his late teens or early twenties (he claimed to be age nineteen).

The question then becomes, why did Margaret Bulkley became James Barry? The two main theories haven’t changed in about 150 years – James Barry was a woman, or James Barry was intersexed. In popular culture, the first possibility has won out (Barry as a heroic woman), though Barry’s best biographer – Rachel Holmes – believes that there’s more evidence to support the other theory.

There is another possibility, which I have never seen mentioned anywhere: Barry could have been transgendered.

The Problem of Trans History

Trying to uncover a transgendered history, the historian runs immediately into the same prejudice they hit when trying to dig up gay history – the misconception, bolstered by both prejudice and Postmodernism, that this kind of history is an anachronism.

The assumption that trans people appear out of nowhere the minute sex-reassignment surgery was invented is not helped much by the few books and webpages purporting to discuss trans history, which tend to begin in the mid-20th century. Both seem to reinforce the idea that a trans identity is something new.

Yet, there has always been transgenderism – usually damned by association to homosexuality, or treated as a sign of insanity (as in the case of the Roman emperor Heliogabalus). Well into the 20th century, believing oneself to be a gender other than the one assigned based on the appearance of the body was treated as a form of madness, and this supposed madness has even formed the basis of a popular sitcom subplot.

Back to Barry: what if Margaret Bulkley didn’t adopt a male identity because “she” was partially male-bodied, or because “she” simply wanted male privilege, but simply because “she” felt herself to be a man? And, if so, how many others were there out there who successfully “passed?”

There’s no proof, of course – we have no idea how Barry saw his own gender, or even know for sure what his body looked like under his clothes. Yet the fact that the possibility has never even been raised is telling.

Also telling is that of the four possibilities of Barry’s secret – that he was a woman, that he was intersexed, trans, or a homosexual, cisgendered male – the least-queer possibility is the one that seems to have carried the day and won out in popular opinion.

Barry’s life is a good starting point for the discussion of a trans history in Canada. The problem is – before we can have that discussion – we have to admit that it was a possibility, and so far none of the historians or writers who’ve looked into the story of James Miranda Barry seemed to have considered it.

For my next instalment, I’m going to the increasing persecution in the late 19th-century and early 20th century, starting with wrap up this Pre-Confederation history with some concluding thoughts before moving on to late-Victorian Canada.


Sources: Anything written here, except for my own theories and interpretations, are nothing more than a footnote to Rachel Holmes’ brilliant Scanty Particulars, which attempts the delicate surgery of cutting away the layers of myth that have become a tumour on Barry’s story. Holmes is very attached to the intersexed theory, which I don’t think she quite proves, but she makes a very convincing case. Other biographies were riddled with inaccuracy Dr. Barry: Her Secret Story for example, and largely useful only for humour value. Most articles I’ve read on Barry – from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography to Wikipedia — are unhelpful and in Wikipedia’s case, inaccurate (Wikipedia lists a birthdate, for example, which can’t possibly be known).
The sitcom, for anyone who’s still wondering, was M*A*S*H.

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