Dr. James Barry was a surgical pioneer. Born in 1797 in Ireland, he rose from renowned military surgeon to inspector general of hospitals – one of the highest army medical posts. He performed one of the first successful Cesarean sections. He was a committed sanitary reformer and a dedicated advocate for better treatment of slaves, the insane, and prisoners. He was unafraid of fighting duels, or of ticking off the great Florence Nightingale, to defend his views. He was a vegetarian and often traveled with a menagerie of small animals.
He was also born female.
And you wouldn’t believe the flurry of commentators trying desperately to explain how this could possibly be. Why did he choose to live as a man? Was he really a female, or something else? What does this mean about his gender – was he a woman forced to pretend to be a man in order to practice medicine, or did he truly consider himself to be one? What does this mean about his sexual orientation? Did his colleagues know? Did his lovers? Oh the hours of historical research! Oh the long postulations interrogating every known aspect of his life and personality to unravel the true story behind the bewitching scandal of how this surgeon deceived an entire professional field.
In her 2002 biography, Rachel Holmes asserts that Barry was born with both “male” and “female” biological characteristics and brought up female, then opted to live as a man. Others insist that he identified as a boy since his youth. De Preez and Dronfield dismiss this, arguing that his decision to masquerade as a man was “motivated more by ambition than identity.” Historians butt heads over whether he was a homosexual, and if so a homosexual man or a homosexual woman? They can’t even agree as to whether his characteristic temper and reputation as a ladykiller was a calculated move to better play the part of a man, a way to overcompensate for his feminine appearance, or just genuine aspects of his personality. Some writings on his life refer to him as ‘he,’ others use ‘she,’ and his Wikipedia page avoids pronouns all together. I use ‘he’ because he used these pronouns for himself, whatever the reason, and wished to be remembered as a man after his death.
So what was he, you ask? Woman masquerading as man? Transgender? Intersex?
We don’t know. But here’s a better question: Why do we need to know?
Barry’s gender identity will always be an enigma to us. He left no material directly addressing this aspect of his life, perhaps because he felt he couldn’t do so without risk of losing everything he worked so hard to obtain… perhaps because he simply didn’t feel like it. Gender nonconforming people are not obligated to explain or justify their experiences. Barry is not here to answer our questions, and 21st-century subjects cannot understand what it was like to be gender-nonconforming in Victorian Europe.
And yet this obsession remains around uncovering Barry’s “true” gender and sex – it is a “tantalisingly veiled” “exquisite subterfuge” that historians can’t leave unsolved. Why is it not enough to remember this great surgeon as a gender non-conforming innovator who wished to be remembered as a man, for reasons he could not or did not wish to fully explain?
It seems to me understandable, yet deplorable, that some historians need Barry to be something other than a woman – intersex, transgender man, anything will do – because they cannot accept that a Victorian woman could possibly possess his characteristics, aspirations, and talents. It also seems to me understandable, and laudable, that transgender men, cisgender women, and intersex individuals all want Barry to be one of their own. They need to see people like them represented in history, where so often they are marginalized, erased, and brutalized. But these are the identities and motivations that historians should be questioning, not what and why Barry was the way he was. Barry is a gender non-conforming individual to respect and revere, not an enigma for us to solve.
Fergusson, Maggie. “Doctor in disguise: the secret life of James Barry.” The Spectator. 27 August 2016, Web. 2 April 2018.
Holmes, Rachel. The Secret Life of Dr. James Barry: Victorian England’s Most Eminent Surgeon. Tempus, 2007.
Moore, Wendy. “Dr. James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time review – an exquisite story of scandalous subterfuge.” The Guardian. 10 November 2016, Web. 2 April 2018.
Rose, June. The Perfect Gentleman. Hutchinson, 1977.