James Barry

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[James Barry, c. 1813-1816. This image is in the public domain]

It’s often said that historians make meaning or sense of the past. It’s been my experience as a student of history that, when I come across certain historical figures, I wish to make sense of them. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves to let people be who they are. Thus, this week I am featuring James Barry, an Irish-born medical reformer from the British Army.

James Barry was born in 1799 in a body that was considered after death to be female. From early childhood, Barry’s mother and her friends identified Barry as a wunderkind. In 1809, Barry began studying medicine and literature at university as a boy student. Three years later, Barry successfully graduated with an MD, despite the university’s attempts to stopper someone so youthful from presenting a thesis. Later in the same year, Barry moved to London and apprenticed with a surgeon at St. Thomas’s Hospital. A year later Barry joined the army as a junior-most medical officer, a career that took Barry to several colonies.

As an army surgeon, Barry displayed professional prowess and enacted medical reforms. Sydney Brandon, one of Barry’s biographers, has noted that Barry had an egalitarian attitude toward medicine—“She invariably championed the neglected and oppressed of any race or station in life. Prisons, leper colonies, and indigent patients always received her attention, and she never accepted fees for her private practice.”[1] And this led to conflicts with authority figures. Nonetheless, Barry had a long career as a medical inspector in the army. When Barry died in 1865, the death certificate was signed without a corresponding medical examination; the signatory of Barry’s death certificate had long known Barry, and found it unnecessary to examine, and especially to sex the corpse. The death certificate listed Barry’s sex as male, and Barry was buried in the masculinised garb in which the surgeon had dressed in life. However, the woman who laid out Barry’s body considered it to be female (and to have once been pregnant), and the story was picked up by the press in cities across Britain.

As a historical figure, Barry is problematic (not least because of his military and colonial associations). Some might consider Barry an example of an brilliant, empowered, rebellious woman who presented herself as a man—hoodwinking contemporary intellectuals and military officials—in order to pursue a successful, masculinised career. Indeed, Barry has been retroactively credited with being the first woman MD. Some authors refer to Barry as “she,” and others as “he.” I confess, the question of which pronoun I ought to use plagued me as I wrote this. Would it be truest to the surgeon to present Barry as a woman, a man, or as genderqueer? The singular they would anachronistically place Barry into a category that wasn’t contemporaneously defined. Would that be more or less “truthful” than labelling Barry as “she” or “he?” (In the end I chose to use alternate sentence construction in order avoid pronouns altogether). Predominant present day perspectives compel one to understand Barry as either a woman living secretly as a man, or else as a transgendered man. Either or these may be the case. Or they may not be. Not everyone is male, female, trans or intersexed. Assumptions about gender limit how we understand one another in the present day, and this is equally the case when we try to discern the “truth” of those in bygone times.

 

~S

[1] “Barry, James (c.1799–1865),” Sydney Brandon in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, eee ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, January 2008, http://www.oxforddnb.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/view/article/1563 (accessed April 15, 2016).

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