Skirting the Issue of ‘passing’

What makes a good man? According to history, on numerous occasions, a woman.

As early as ‘Antiquity’ it is told that a Greek woman by the name of Epopole of Carystus dressed as a man joined the Greek army during the Trojan War.

Of course one of the most famous examples of a woman taking on the appearance of a man in order to fight an enemy is Joan of Arc who led the French army to several important victories during the Hundred Years’ War and ultimately burned at the stake in 1431 for her troubles.

The list continues to include;

Deborah Sampson (1760 -1827) of Massachusetts, the first known American woman who disguised herself as a man to enlist as an infantry soldier. She served in the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War.

Hannah Snell 1723–1792) was an Englishwoman who entered military service under the name “James Gray”, initially for the purpose of searching for her missing husband. She served in General Guise’s regiment in the army of the Duke of Northumberland, and then in the marines.

Zoya Smirnow (1897/98-after 1916) was a Russian schoolgirl who along with 11 other friends ran away from their Moscow school and disguised themselves as men and joined the Russian army where they fought in Galicia and the Carpathians during World War I.

What would possess a woman to take on the appearance and persona of a man? In order to secure employment or join the military and bear arms? Is it the thrill of taking such a risk? Is it to find your loved one that was called up or volunteered? Is it out of lonliness, loyalty, patriotism? Is it because when you look in the mirror or looking glass it is not a woman that looks back at you but the person who you are in your soul, a man?

Margaret Ann Bulkley was a women who lived her life as a man in order to achieve her goals. Margaret’s early life is very sketchy including the year in which she was born with dates ranging from 1789 to 1799. There is no direct information available regarding her childhood and youth other than being her born in Ireland to a financially challenged family . Her Father was imprisoned and her Mother unable to secure sufficient money on which to live.


Margaret Ann Bulkley

Margaret proved to be a very able pupil. Her Mother decided it was in the best interests of all that Margaret become a physician. At that time, women were not permitted to enter university, so it was decided that she would masquerade as a man and train as a doctor so and elaborate and ambitious plan was devised to get Margaret to Medical School in order to become a physician

It is accepted that through her Mother’s influential friends a place was found for young Margaret to enroll in Medical School in Edinburgh. Records indicate that she boarded a ship bound for to Edinburgh in 1809 in order to become a trained physician. Somewhere along the way Margaret Bulkley disappeared never to be seen or heard from again until her death and James Miranda Barry was conceived.

Three years later Dr. James Miranda Barry moved back to London for a six-month stint as an apprentice surgeon at St Thomas’s Hospital. It should be noted that had she been permitted to do so as a woman, Margaret would have been the first woman to graduate Medical School which is attributed to Elizabeth Maxwell in 1849. In 1813 he joined the Army as Dr James Miranda Barry.

Barry’s medical career was exemplary. He likely served at Waterloo, was stationed in India and Cape Town South Africa where he was the first to perform a ceaserian birth on which both mother and child survived.


Dr. James Miranda Barry

Barry’s next postings included Mauritius in 1828. It is while stationed here that it is suggested that a still born child was born to the good doctor. He then served in Trinidad and Tobago and the island of Saint Helena . Later he served in Malta, Corfu, the Crimea and Jamaica and Montreal, Canada in 1831 as an Inspector-General of Hospitals.

By 1845 Barry was serving as principal medical officer in the West Indies, where he contracted a terrible bout of yellow fever. Fearing he would not survive he laid down very strict instructions that in the event of his death, his body should not be interfered with be left in a nightshirt and wrapped in a winding sheet.

He was a noted surgeon of great skill and would avoid needless suffering to his patients abhorring the unnecessary inflicting of pain upon those in his care. His success in the field of medicine was attributed to his keen attention to cleanliness, his gifted bed side manner and the introduction of healthier conditions and a nutritious diet for soldiers.

Throughout his career, Barry would be accompanied by his man servant John and his beloved dogs. Dr. Barry was not without his distractors. He was known to be argumentative, arrogant, impatient and combative which resulted in the fighting of a couple of duel of honour when his professionalism and personal traits were called into question.

During the Crimean War, Dr. Barry went head to head with the famous “Lady with the Lamp”, Florence Nightingale who upon his death stated


Dr James Barry (left) with John, a servant, and his dog Psyche, c. 1862, Jamaica

I never had such a blackguard rating in all my life – I who have had more than any woman – than from this Barry sitting on his horse, while I was crossing the Hospital Square with only my cap on in the sun. He kept me standing in the midst of quite a crowd of soldiers, Commissariat, servants, camp followers, etc., etc., every one of whom behaved like a gentleman during the scolding I received while he behaved like a brute . . After he was dead, I was told that (Barry) was a woman . . . I should say that (Barry) was the most hardened creature I ever met.

Dr. James Barry died July 25th 1865 as a result of dystentry. In complete disregard to his final wishes which were to ‘lay’ him out in the clothes in which he died and perform no post mortem, charwoman Sophia Bishop, took care of the body and in doing so examined his anatomy and revealed the information of his gender after the funeral.


Barry was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery with full rank inscribed on the tombstone.

The situation came to light after an exchange of letters between George Graham of the General Register Office, and Major D. R. McKinnon, Barry’s doctor and the person who had issued the death certificate on which Barry was identified as male.

It has been stated to me that Inspector-General Dr James Barry, who died at 14 Margaret Street on 25 July 1865, was after his death found to be female. As you furnished the Certificate as to the cause of his death, I take the liberty of asking you whether what I have heard is true, and whether you yourself ascertained that he was a woman and apparently had been a mother?
Perhaps you may decline answering these questions; but I ask them not for publication but for my own information.
Your faithful servant
George Graham

McKinnon’s response was as follows:

I had been intimately acquainted with the doctor for good many years, both in London and the West Indies and I never had any suspicion that Dr Barry was a woman. I attended him during his last illness, (previously for bronchitis, and the affection for diarrhoea). On one occasion after Dr Barry’s death at the office of Sir Charles McGregor, there was the woman who performed the last offices for Dr Barry was waiting to speak to me. She wished to obtain some prerequisites of his employment, which the Lady who kept the lodging house in which Dr Barry died had refused to give her. Amongst other things she said that Dr Barry was a female and that I was a pretty doctor not to know this and she would not like to be attended by me. I informed her that it was none of my business whether Dr. Barry was a male or a female, and that I thought that he might be neither, viz. an imperfectly developed man. She then said that she had examined the body, and was a perfect female and farther that there were marks of him having had a child when very young. I then enquired how have you formed that conclusion. The woman, pointing to the lower part of her stomach, said ‘from marks here. I am a maried woman and the mother of nine children and I ought to know.’

The woman seems to think that she had become acquainted with a great secret and wished to be paid for keeping it. I informed her that all Dr Barry’s relatives were dead, and that it was no secret of mine, and that my own impression was that Dr Barry was a Hermaphrodite. But whether Dr Barry was a male, female, or hermaphrodite I do not know, nor had I any purpose in making the discovery as I could positively swear to the identity of the body as being that of a person whom I had been acquainted with as Inspector-General of Hospitals for a period of years.
Yours faithfully,
D.R. McKinnon

Well done Dr. McKinnon!

I cannot begin to imagine the pains it took for Dr. Barry and others like him to maintain their secret. It must be exhausting to be constantly checking yourself to make sure you do not slip up and reveal yourself to the world due to a fear of being persecuted, terminated from employment, bullied or even killed. What lengths they must go through to keep people at a distance, avoid intimacy and deny themselves of simple pleasures

I would like to think that we have evolved to the point where ones gender is not an issue or concern in the ability to do a job and do it well. Regardless of whether one is male female, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or questioning I would like to think that we are open minded and accepting of all people. We have seen through recent events that the world has become a lot kinder and more tolerant of those that are born with gender identity or sexual orientation challenges but sadly not all share in the belief we are all equal.

Wonderful newspaper article printed shortly after the death of Dr Barry, click here.


Dr. James Barry books we offer, click here


Article written by Julia McLaren, The Lord Durham Report editor

© text Lord Durham Rare Books, all rights reserved.

One thought on “Skirting the Issue of ‘passing’

  1. I loved reading this highly literate story of the good doctor. The editor must have a blast researching the bio’s and bibliographies of such intriguing characters.

    Gail B

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