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Was James Barry the UK’s First Trans & Intersex Doctor?

Blog by Lily Hannigan

The theme for this year’s LGBTQ+ History Month is Medicine. So we thought it would be the perfect opportunity to talk about James Barry, a 19th-century physician who was assigned female at birth but lived and worked as a man for the great majority of his life. It wasn’t until Barry’s death, when his body was examined against his wishes, that Barry’s gender was called into question.

portrait painting of james barry, wearing a man's shirt and black cravat

Portrait of a youthful man, assumed to be Dr. Barry. Museum Africa, Johannesberg.

James Barry’s Life and Legacy

Born in Cork, Ireland, and later moving to Edinburgh to pursue medical training, Barry advanced in the British Army and made a noteworthy career as a surgeon. Rising to the rank of Inspector General, Barry significantly improved conditions for wounded soldiers and the local populations in the regions he served, including South Africa, where he performed the first recorded caesarean section by a European, in which both mother and child survived.

Working as a doctor under the British Empire, Barry went to India, the Caribbean and other countries where has been recognised for his commitment to improving conditions in healthcare.

James Barry was also a vegetarian, he didn’t drink and he never married, but had a series of dogs called Psyche (which from this 21st century queer, sounds pretty gay).

For years, however, feminist historians have framed Barry’s story as one of a determined woman who assumed a male identity to circumvent the gender restrictions of the time. This perspective positions Barry’s assumption of a masculine identity as a purely strategic choice, made in the wake of his father’s financial downfall. The history of cis women assuming a male identity to avoid the trappings of patriarchy is a fascinating and important part of both queer history and women’s history, but it might not be the right frame in this instance.

etching of a Heriots Hospital in Edinburgh

Heriots Hospital Edinburgh.

Why James Barry is Being Claimed as a Trans & Intersex Pioneer

For a number of reasons, later commentators have challenged the idea that Barry assumed a male identity for career advancement alone.

Barry lived his entire adult life as a man, in both public and private spheres. This is in stark contrast to figures like Isabelle Eberhardt, an explorer who dressed in men’s clothing for the purposes of safety and freedom, without seemingly adopting an entire persona. Though Barry never married, as a doctor with profound influence, we must assume that hcee developed relationships in which he was known in his identity as a man.

When Barry was first stationed in Cape Town, he was accused of being in a homosexual relationship with Governor Lord Charles Somerset, at a time when homosexuality was heavily criminalised. Despite the scandal and the serious nature of the accusations, there were no questions raised about Barry’s gender. This lack of doubt, even in the face of such allegations, strongly supports the notion that Barry’s male identity was firmly established. It underscores how Barry adeptly managed his identity amidst societal challenges, suggesting that his lived experience as a man was genuine and integral to his sense of self.

As Rachel Holmes’ book on James Barry makes very clear, he was also meticulous about privacy and no more so than where his body was concerned. Barry’s final wish was to be buried in the clothes he died in, with no post-mortem examination conducted – an unusual wish for a progressively-minded physician.

Contemporaneous newspaper reports state that Barry made repeated requests ‘to prevent any examination of his person’ after his death, asking that he be ‘buried in his bed sheets without further inspection.’

And finally, when the official death registrar approached Barry’s personal doctor to verify Barry’s sexual identity, his reply is unusual, lengthy and ambiguous. In fact, Dr. D. R. Mckinnon ultimately refuses to answer the question, saying:

‘whether Dr Barry was 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 eight or nine years.’

What I take from this letter is that those close to James Barry felt it would be both factually incorrect and a great betrayal to describe the doctor as female, suggesting that he went to great pains to be wholly understood as a man.

Secondly, given the three references to hermaphroditism in the letter, it is also possible that James Barry may have been intersex, and had sexual characteristics that could not neatly be situated as either male or female. As we know from people in our own time, it is entirely possible to identify as both intersex and trans, and while Barry didn’t have this lexicon available to him, there is much to suggest that these categories might have been a good fit.

photo of james barry, their dog Psyche and his servant

Photograph of Dr. James Barry, their dog Psyche and his servant (name unknown).

Disagreement Among Biographers and Historians

That said, as historian Ann Heilmann told the Guardian, ‘much of what we ‘know’ about him is really the Barry myth’ reflecting the fact that even the coroner had to rely on rumours and conflicting accounts to draw up the doctor’s death certificate.

Books are still being written about the doctor using female pronouns, such as EJ Levy’s 2021 novel The Cape Doctor. (Confusingly, Levy, defended her choice to assign pronouns to Barry that he has ostensibly rejected, on the basis that her novel ‘refused facile gender categories.’)

In her book ‘Scanty Particulars,’ Rachel Holmes is far less ambiguous. According to Holmes, ‘It is perfectly clear that Barry had ASS [androgyn insensitivity syndrome] and effectively would now be a trans person. He didn’t have the language or the science, but he was looking for it.’

The Importance of Queer Perspectives in History

While we may never know how Barry felt about their gender identity, Holmes perspective invites us to reconsider as a historical trans and/or intersex person of note. Barry’s life invites us to reflect on the complexities of gender identity in an era when doing so was fraught with unimaginable risks. In sharing some of Barry’s legacy, we want to note that we continue to live in a time where people have to fight to be recognised according to the gender they live in. That’s why it couldn’t be more important to share these nuanced perspectives on historical figures and show people that queers have always been here!

Barry’s insistence on privacy, his complex relationships and the enduring ambiguity surrounding his identity highlight the ongoing struggle for recognition and understanding faced by those who do not conform to traditional gender norms. By revisiting Barry’s story with a contemporary understanding of gender, we honour his legacy and the countless others who have lived authentic lives against the odds.