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James Barry

James Barry
00:00 / 03:55

Dr. James Barry was an incredibly impactful person and took no shit from anyone. He was a sugent so I’ve made a little surgery game for you. Try not to hit the sides, and if that’s easy challenge yourself by playing with your non-dominant hand.


He was born was born Margaret Ann Bulkley in 1789 in Cork, Ireland. Barry got his male name from his mother’s brother, the well known painter, James Barry. 


With support from his mother and friends of her brother, Barry enrolled in medical school at the University of Edinburgh. There Barry was a successful student and continued his education in London and successfully passed the examination of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. 


After medical school, Barry joined the army medical core to become a surgeon. 

This also served as an escape from England, where his history might be more likely to be discovered. 


For a long period of time he was posted in Cape Town, South Africa. There was little medical infrastructure when he arrived and Barry worked tirelessly to establish medical practices. His particular focus was on sanitation. He was one of the first people to draw the connection between sanitation and infection. And big shocker, his practices made the survival rate skyrocket.


He also was a forceful advocate for quality care for all including lepers, prisoners, and the mentally ill. This was of course amazing and admirable but made him lots of powerful enemies. It didn’t help at all that Barry was well known for having a short temper. 


Funnily, he was also notorious for his warm and caring bedside manners. So fantastic with patience but aggressive, pushy, and threatening to any idiot who crossed him. He even famously had a quite fierce argument with Florence Nightingale, she said he was a brute and the hardest creature she’d ever met. 


In Cape Town, Barry became very close to the Governor-General Lord Somerset. The two were accused of having a homosexual relationship, which was highly illegal at that time. Many believe that Somerset knew Barry’s secret, and chose to keep doctor's secret event though it would have cleared Somerset's name. The charges were eventually dropped due to lack of evidence. 


Despite this scandal, Barry was still called on when a mother was struggling in childbirth. Barry performed the first successful cesarean section in Africa where both the mother and child survived. I think this is especially amazing because it’s likely that Barry had never seen the procedure done but had only read about it. The family was so grateful they named the child after Barry. The tradition of naming children “James Barry” continued in the family including James Barry Munnick Hertzog who became Prime Minister of South Africa in 1924.


Everywhere around the world Barry worked, he had an enormous positive impact. Improving sanitation in water supplies, sanitary conditions in jails, for soldiers, treating cholera, gonerai, and syphilis, saving countless lives. He rose to the rank of  Inspector General, the highest medical rank in the military.


In his final wishes, Barry asked that his body not be examined but be wrapped in bedsheets and buried as is. While some argue that Barry only dressed as a man to enjoy the benefits of living as a man at a time when women couldn’t even attend medical school, I see Barry’s desire to remain a man in death a clear indication that “male” is how he wanted to be remembered and identified.


Despite his wishes, after Barry’s death from dysentery in 1865 the charwoman tending to Barry’s body discovered his secret. She demanded money for her silence. When she was not compensated she went to the press, publicly exposing Barry. The army sealed Barry’s records to suppress the story. James was interned in full military rank under the name James Barry.

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