The Double Life of Dr. James Barry

Inspector-General Barry ruled the British Army’s medical corps in Canada with a bossy efficiency in a thick cloud of rumor and legend. Then, after 53 years’ service, a shocking secret came out

James Bannerman December 1 1950

The Double Life of Dr. James Barry

Inspector-General Barry ruled the British Army’s medical corps in Canada with a bossy efficiency in a thick cloud of rumor and legend. Then, after 53 years’ service, a shocking secret came out

James Bannerman December 1 1950

The Double Life of Dr. James Barry

Inspector-General Barry ruled the British Army’s medical corps in Canada with a bossy efficiency in a thick cloud of rumor and legend. Then, after 53 years’ service, a shocking secret came out


James Bannerman

ONE of the sights of Montreal in the winter of 1858 was a magnificent red sleigh that dashed along Sherbrooke Street every fine afternoon, silver bells jingling, harness glittering, a coachman and footman in glossy furs on the front seat. But eye-filling though all this was, two things made the sleigh downright spectacular the lunatic speed at which it was driven and the grotesque appearance of its solitary passenger.

Not quite five feet tall he wore a tight-fitting dark-hlue military uniform. His chin, half hidden hy the folds of the greatcoat collar, was narrow and sloping; his mouth a liny peevish slil under a heuk of a nose. The yellowish cheeks had a kind of withered smoothness, and such of his thinning hair as

could he seen under a gold-braided peaked cap was dyed scarlet. Every now and again, when the sleigh bounced and slewed in an icy rut, he was flung violently fo the floor, cursing in a voice like the squall of an angry sea gull.

Even the most polite Montrealers stared openly. For the strange little creature struggling in a tangle of musk-ox robes at the bottom of his wonderful sleigh was Dr. James Barry, Inspector-General of Military Hospitals and Principal Medical Officer of the British Army in Canada. Army doctors at this time did not rate military titles beyond that of the post they held. Barry’s equivalent

rank, however, was major-general. Although he had only arrived from Fngland that fall he was already surrounded hy rumor and legend.

People said his coachmen drove him as they did in revenge for being treated like flogs and that he had to hire and fire a new one every few flays. They said he never drank wine or s arils, and would eat nothing hut fruif and vegetables. They said he slept fin specially made pillo vs which he took with him wherever he went, aid used an enormous number of hath towels. They slid a go-nt deal, and some of it was true. But there was something far stranger about the inspector-general than anything they knew or guessed, something too fantastic to suspect.

James Barry was a woman.

The beginning of her story is lost. There is no record of her birth Continued on ¡mue HU

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which was probably in Scotland some time between 1790 and 1794. Nobody knows when or why she first decided on her masquerade. What is certain is that she entered the University of Edinburgh in the early 1800’s as a male student, graduated in medicine in 1812, entered the British Army as a man the next year with the rank of hospital assistant, and served continuously as a man until the day of her death in London in 1865. And only then, when the nurses told what they had found when they laid out the scrawny body for burial, did the flabbergasted War Office learn the secret of James Barry, M.D., second most senior officer in the Army Medical Department.

If Barry had been a strapping jutjawed Grenadier of a woman the deception would have been astonishing enough; but she was just the opposite —small, finicking, and so delicately built that even in old age she had the look of a wrinkled child. At the university the undergrads laughed at her because she wore a long frock coat instead of the customary short jacket, and some of the more observant noticed she always carried her elbows inward like a girl rather than outward like a man. Once a student named Jobson stopped her in a courtyard and insisted he was going to teach her to box; but instead of hitting back she simply stood with her arms crossed over her chest, flinching away from him.

She Had a Lot of Drag

She avoided the roaring beer parties which were the delight of her fellows, lived quietly in lodgings with her mother, and kept to herself whenever she wasn’t following the staff surgeons around the wards, carrying their knives and saws and rolled strips of rag bandages on a wooden tray. To make sure she was left alone she cultivated a boorish manner, took offence at the least slight to her waspish dignity, and several times challenged students to a duel on grounds so preposterous they were never for one moment taken seriously.

Yet nobody, then or later, suspected James Barry of being anything more than a conceited and effeminate little man. And although her manner was repellent throughout the whole of her military career, and although she was usually disrespectful and occasionally insubordinate, nothing ever checked her rapid and steady rise in the service.

That, and the fact that she lived in a style which would have been impossible on her pay alone (she always rented a big house wherever she was stationed and kept a carriage and plenty of servants), made her a complete mystery to her brother officers.

Some tried to explain it by saying Barry was an illegitimate son of the Prince Regent, richly provided for and protected by his royal father. Others maintained he was the lovechild of a noble lord and a beautiful Highland lassie with flaming hair and the devil’s own temper. Neither of these romantic theories was true.

Years after her death a Colonel Rogers, in a letter published in the British medical journal, Lancet, on May 2, 1896, quoted what Sir William Mackinnon, then head of the Army Medical Department, had told him four days earlier: “You are aware, I

suppose, that Barry was the daughter of a Scottish baronet, Buchan by name, who married one of the Somerset family. Hence the doctor’s great influence at headquarters through Fitzroy-Somerset, Lord Raglan.’’

It was this influence that got her into the Army in the first place. Lord Raglan, who had no idea his relative was a girl but knew Barry to be painfully modest, had arranged with the president of the Army Medical Board to pass the odd-looking little candidate without any physical examination whatever, provided certificates of fitness from two civilian doctors could be produced. And produced they were, Barry having dazzled a couple of snobbish specialists into declaring her sound and well after merely asking her to stick out her tongue, while she remained fully dressed as a fashionable young man.

With such a sponsor she didn’t care how offensively she conducted herself. And she hadn’t been long on her first station, the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, in 1815, before she got into what might have been fatal trouble with an officer named Cloete.

At a dinner party in the 1870’s Cloete told the story himself. “When I was aide-de-camp to Lord Charles Somerset at the Cape,” he said, “a buxom lady called to see him on business of a private nature and they were closeted for some time. Dr. Barry made some disparaging remark about this. ‘Oh, I say, Cloete,’ he sneered, ‘that’s a nice Dutch filly the Governor has got hold of.’ ‘Retract your vile expression, you infernal little cad,’ said I, advancing and pulling his long ugly nose. Barry immediately challenged me and we fought with pistols, fortunately without effect.”

This was the only time Barry ever provoked an actual duel, possibly because the men she insulted were willing to swallow a lot from anyone so puny, so absurdly short-tempered, and above all so obviously well-connected. Still, she made enemies half around the world as her duty took her from the Cape to Malta, St. Helena, Jamaica, Barbados, and other British outposts. And if it appeared that some more than ordinarily indulgent officer wanted to be her friend anyway she behaved

with such chilling rudeness that no amount of good will could overcome it.

She had to. Friendship with a man was too risky. There would always have been a chance he would burst into her quarters without knocking and find her naked. And that would have been the last of James Barry.

Bombshell In a Bedroom

Something like that did happen once, in spite of her precautions, one night in Trinidad where she was principal medical officer of the garrison. Early one evening a young assistant surgeon had asked a subaltern he knew to walk with him into Port-au-Prince. Barry was down with fever at the house of a woman friend there and had left strict orders that none of her juniors was to visit her under any circumstances. Nevertheless the assistant was worried and decided to go anyhow.

When the two youngsters got there the doctor went into Barry’s bedroom and the subaltern waited outside on the wide verandah, smoking a cheroot. Suddenly the doctor called him to come to the bedroom where he flung back the bedclothes, and said wonderingly, “Seè —Barry is a woman!”

Barry woke, looked at the bewildered pair for a moment, then begged them in a low voice to swear they would keep her secret. They did. The young doctor died before her and took it to his grave. And in 1881 when the subaltern, then a colonel, told about it over a glass of wine in the mess, he added stiffly: “I have never till now mentioned the subject.”

Although Barry dared not have men friends she felt free to know as many women as she liked; and before she had been in the service a year she had begun to get a reputation as a lady-killer. She never missed a garrison ball, always picked the prettiest girls for her partners, and flirted with them outrageously. It made no difference to her whether they were married or single

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and if the wife of a brother officer took her fancy she never tried to hide her admiration.

As a rule the husbands don’t seem to have minded, perhaps because Barry didn't strike them as the kind of little man any woman would fall in love with. But when she was stationed in Jamaica the adjutant of the regiment sent her a note saying he would be obliged if Surgeon Major Barry would kindly not make a point of calling on his wife just when he. the adjutant, had to be on duty in the orderly room. And occasionally an anxious father or a matchmaking mamma would demand to know if Barry's intentions toward a shy young daughter were serious. This would immediately force Barry into an impossible position and she would apologize and start flirting with someone else.

Because Barry could afford to pay her own passage when she traveled home to England on leave or from one station to another she saw to it that she was given a private cabin aboard ship. Once, however, she went from St. Thomas to Barbados in a steamer so crowded she had to share her cabin with a notablywhiskered Army captain. How she got out of that difficulty the captain described in a letter written long afterward:

“I was in the top berth, she in the lower—of course without any suspicion of her sex on my part. I well remember how in harsh and peevish voice she ordered me out of her cabin, blow high, blow low. while she dressed in the morning. ‘Now then, youngster, clear out of mv cabin while I dress.’ she would say.”

There was another reason, quite apart from the obvious one, why Barry wouldn’t let herself be seen dressing. She was excessively vain of her appearance and didn't want it known that as she grew older and her red hair began to turn grey she spent half an hour or so every few mornings touching it up with dye. Nor, although she was as flatchested as many a man. could she allow anyone to watch her wrapping her waist and upper body with layer after layer of bath towels so as to give herself a more dashing and soldierly figure a

practice which accounted for the extraordinary number of towels she used and for the baffled gossip about it that sprang up wherever she went.

Yet for all her conceit and her ridiculous looks Barry was respected for her skill as a doctor. She was mentioned in dispatches for her courage and ability during an out break of malignant fever on the island of Corfu when she was stationed there, and regularlypraised by her commanding officers in their reports. She was as good a surgeon as she was a physician, and while at Malta did some of the most difficult and successful operations in the history of the garrison hospital.

By the time she came to Montreal in the fall of 1857 to take charge of the Army Medical Department in Canada she was a tired old woman (she couldn’t have been less than 62 and may have been nearly 70 . worn out by repeated bouts of fever and her long service. Age had mellowed her temper a little and taken the edge ofT her furious energy, but she was still a hard worker and. with half a century of experience, a better doctor than ever.

She had always stood up for the menin the ranks against officers who didn’t think common soldiers rated much consideration and there was now little she wouldn’t do to keep them well and happy. In the 1850’s British troops in Canada were fed beef seven days a week all year round, whether they were shivering in a blizzard or sweating in a heat wave. This was quite all right with the lieutenant-general commanding but not with Barry, who wrote to him on April 7. 1858. demanding some pork and mutton to vary the diet. The general didn’t bother answering her letter.

But when Barry wrote again and again, each time more acid, the general knew he had a medical officer who couldn't be pushed around, and a new set of orders were issued by which Barry got her wav.

Her anger at her superior’s fatheaded resistance to change made Barry ill and she had to take to her bed in the pillared house she rented at 22 Durocher Street. And since for once she was sick enough to need a doctor it looked as if her secret would come out at last unless she could get hold of someone as scrupulously

honorable as the assistant surgeon and his subaltern friend in Trinidad.

She sent for Dr. G. W. Campbell, a civilian who later became dean of McGill University’s medical faculty. Campbell, although he attended her several times and was as much her friend as she ever allowed a man to be, never even suspected her real sex. According to Sir William Osier, who was one of Campbell’s students at McGill after Barry had died and the truth was known, Dean Campbell sometimes told his classes about this curious oversight, as a joke on himself and by way of warning.

“Gentlemen,” he would say, “if I had not stood in some awe of InspectorGeneral Barry’s rank and medical attainments I would have examined him—that is, her—far more thoroughly. Because I did not, and because his—confound it, her-

bedroom was always in almost tota' darkness when I paid my calls, this, ah crucial point escaped me. Whic’ shows you should never let yourself bt too impressed by any colleague to treat him just like any other patient.”

Superficial though Campbell’s examination seems to have been the remedies he prescribed did the trick and Barry was soon well enough to go back to duty.

By the spring of 1859 she had had enough and she applied through the proper channels to be relieved. On April 7, 1859, she was ordered to hand over to her next in command, and on May 14 she sailed for England.

There she went before a medical board whose president, since Barry was senior to him and obviously ill, merely shook hands, said, “Ha, James, feeling a bit seedy, hey?” and recommended her immediate retirement on half-pay.

For the next six years Barry lived in furnished lodgings at 14 Margaret Street, in a good but not fashionable part of London’s West End.

Toward the middle of July, 1865, something went wrong with the filtering plant at the waterworks and a more than usually large number of bacteria got into the drinking water. Two days later poor old Barry took to her bed contorted with pain, and on July 25 she died of diarrhea. When the time came to wash and lay her out for burial they stripped the flannel nightgown from her body and the long masquerade was ended.

When the War Office was notified the first reaction to the news that a female had served it for 53 years as a commissioned officer was that the nurses who alleged this monstrous impossibility must have gone mad. But the directorgeneral of the Army Medical Department ordered an autopsy made at once by three of his most competent doctors. And that settled it.

One secret, however, went to Barry's grave with her. Nobody knows why she decided to spend her life as a man. The mystery was discussed for weeks in every regimental mess in the British Army. Some maintained that Barry had been jilted by a nobleman as a young girl and had foresworn her sex as a kind of revenge on all men. Others claimed she did it out of a hopeless love for a royal prince.

No one, then or since, seems to have thought that perhaps the little creature loved the idea of doctoring and, since she couldn’t practice it as a woman in an age when the profession was closed to her sex, she simply and heroically determined to practice it as a man.

But whatever the reason for this amazing masquerade the fact remains that James Barry, M.D., InspectorGeneral of Military Hospitals, was almost certainly the first woman to qualify and pr«*tice as a doctor in the whole long history of medicine. ★