Thursday 20 October 2016

A bitter pill to swallow... Cork doctor who hid a life-long secret

Biography: Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time, Michael du Preez & Jeremy Dronfield, Oneworld, €21.99

Hilary A White

Published 10/10/2016 | 02:30

Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time, Michael du Preez & Jeremy Dronfield
Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time, Michael du Preez & Jeremy Dronfield

Prone as humankind is to gossip and speculation, nothing seems to knock us off our tracks more than when something turns out to be other than that which our initial labels say. Celebrities come out and the internet breaks. Bodies are found under patios and interviewees gasp about what a lovely neighbour the killer always was.

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This tendency will be activated in those who delve into this biography of an extraordinary life lived under the weight of a huge secret.

Born in Cork in 1789, Dr James Barry studied medicine in Edinburgh before rising up to become one of the most highly-regarded physicians in the British Empire. His standing saw him command authority in outposts such as Cape Town, Mauritius and Jamaica where he was known as a genteel "lady killer" but with a tempestuous side that once ended in a pistol duel at dawn.

A stickler for hygiene and humanitarianism, his efforts as Inspector General of Hospitals brought comfort to medical institutions across the empire, improving conditions for aristocrats, soldiers and slaves alike. He is credited with performing the first ever caesarean in Africa to save both mother and infant. What nobody, or very few at least, knew about Dr Barry before his death at the age of 76 is that he was a woman.

The story of this lifelong ruse has been the subject of a decade of exhaustive research by retired Cape Town doctor Michael du Preez. You only have to see the lengthy appendices or wealth of materials to see this has been a labour of love. It has also been a way to not only tell a story that makes George Moore's Albert Nobbs seem a narrow comic farce but also give Dr Barry - or Margaret Ann Bulkley, to use her real name - the treatment she truly deserves.

Adding the top notes is UK novelist Jeremy Dronfield, who ensures that an expansive biography has pace, drama and tangible atmospherics. And how could it not. From her early years in Cork as the smarter sibling of a respectable but down-on-its-luck family, the burden of earning fell to her rather than her ne'er-do-well brother. As a teen she was raped by an uncle resulting in a daughter who was raised as her sister.

The death of her wealthy painter uncle James Barry in London brought with it modest funding and a support network who decided to help disguise her so that a woman, and a Catholic one at that, could pursue a career in Georgian medicine (a grisly, almost gothic, world of laudanum, amputations and bloodlettings). As far as anyone was concerned, she was just a callow youth approaching manhood.

All through the story, hiccups remind you that while the doctor was performing great feats in a world of Napoleonic wars, abolition movements, famine and antiquated social norms, the doctor was hiding an existential hoax. With age, the disguise became harder to conceal and the murmurs of this "singular" man with the "awkward gait" whose "small white hands were the envy of many a lady" intensified. The unveiling of her death brought disgrace.

Du Preez and Dronfield speculate with sensitivity about Bulkley's charade and the close calls. By the end of this large volume there's a feeling of the record being set straight on the noble, if muddled, spirit that burned behind the façade.

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