43. "Consider whether I show a man's wisdom": The enigmatic Dr. James Barry

T. Afolabi


No matter how thorough and diligent the approach to compiling a historical record, occasionally crucial and interesting figures are overlooked. Such is the case with Dr. James Barry.
A nineteenth Century British doctor, Barry was named inspector general of military hospitals and traveled extensively throughout the British Empire. Barry’s story merits telling for both professional and personal reasons. Firstly, in the 1820s, Barry performed what is understood to be the first Cesarean section in which both mother and child survived. However, this notable accomplishment remains absent from many accounts of the history of the cesarean section.
Far more astonishing, however, is that Barry expertly performed his role as a military doctor while somehow concealing his sex, for upon his death he was discovered to not be male.
This paper will examine how a member of the British army was able to conceal such a crucial fact during a career that spanned nearly 50 years. By revisiting army letters, nineteenth Century reports and recent developments, it will be argued that our oversight of Barry’s story is due largely to two main reasons. Firstly, Barry possessed intelligence and skill that gained him the respect of colleagues and superiors alike, and allowed him to quickly rise up military ranks. This respect and high rank no doubt shielded him scrutiny and questioning. Secondly, Barry’s secret was further concealed by a diplomatic and tactful doctor who, after performing a post-mortem, attempted to save face for a doctor he no doubt respected immensely. The circumstances surrounding this attempted concealment as well as the ensuing controversy are examined in this discussion of an elusive and enigmatic doctor.
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Kubba A, Young M. The Life, Work and Gender of Dr. James Barry MD (1795-1865). Proc. R Col. Phys. Eding. 2001; 31:352-356.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.25011/cim.v30i4.2803


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