Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
James Barry (surgeon)
Information about Barry's past is scarce and rife with myth-making and speculation. Some speculate that her original name would have been Miranda Stuart but that's about it. She might have misrepresented her age. Reason for her imposture is obvious; it was practically impossible for a woman to become a professional physician at the time, especially in the army.
Barry was accepted into the Edinburgh University as a 'literary and medical student' in 1809 and qualified with a Medical Doctorate in 1812. She was commissioned as a Hospital Assistant with the British Army in 1813. She might have served in the Battle of Waterloo (June 18, 1815). After that she served in India and then in the South Africa. Depending on what source one believes s/he arrived in Cape Town between 1815 and 1817.
In a couple of weeks she became the Medical Inspector for the colony. During her stay, she arranged for a better water system for Cape Town and performed one of the first known successful Caesarean sections - boy was christened James Barry Munnik. She also gained enemies by criticizing local handling of medical matters. She left in 1828.
Next postings included Mauritius in 1828, Trinidad and Tobago and the island of Saint Helena. In Saint Helena she got into trouble for leaving for England unannounced. Later she served in Malta, Corfu, the Crimea, Jamaica and in 1831 Canada.
By this time she had reached the rank of Inspector General, H.M. Army Hospitals. However, during her next posting in Saint Helena she got into trouble with the internal politics of the island, was arrested and sent to home and demoted to Staff Surgeon . Her next posting was West Indies in 1838.
In the West Indies she concentrated on medicine, management and improving the conditions of the troops and was later promoted to Principal Medical Officer . In 1845, Barry contracted yellow fever and left for England for sick leave in October.
Barry was posted to Malta on November 2, 1846. Within a month of her arrival she took a seat in the local church that was reserved for the clergy and was severely reprimanded. During her stay she had to deal with a threat of a cholera epidemic that eventually arrived in 1850.
Barry was not always a pleasant fellow to be around with. She could be tactless, impatient, argumentative and opinionated. She reputedly fought a couple of duels when someone commented on her voice, features or professionalism. She was punished many times for insubordination and discourteous behavior but often got away with lenient sentences. During the Crimean War (1854 - 1856), she got into an argument with Florence Nightingale. In hindsight, s/he might have been more than little defensive but did not really follow the contemporary meek stereotype of a female sex.
Still, she appears to have had a good bedside manner and professional skill. She tried to improve sanitary conditions wherever she went and improve the conditions and diet of the common soldier. She reacted indignantly to unnecessary suffering. Her insistence to better conditions of poor and commoners annoyed both quacks and her peers. She was a vegetarian and teetotaler and reputedly recommended wine baths for some patients. Her dogs and a black manservant John were her constant companions.
James Barry retired in 1864 —reputedly against her wishes— and returned to England. She died July 25, 1865 and apparently the charwomen who took care of the body were the first to discover she was a woman. One of them claimed to recognize pregnancy scars in her body. Of course afterwards many people claimed to "have known it all along". She was buried with the only known name and with full rank. Her manservant returned to Jamaica.
- June Rose - The Perfect Gentleman
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