Saturday 25 January 2020

Great pretender: doctor who was a woman all along

Biography: Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time, Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield, Oneworld, hdbk, 496 pages, €30

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

Eilis O'Hanlon

Exploring the fascinating tale of how Ann Bulkley became a renowned male surgeon.

An Irish-born gentleman travels to Edinburgh in the early 19th century to begin his medical studies. Qualifying in 1812, he moves to London, entering the Royal College of Surgeons and later joining the British army.

Service in India and South Africa as a military surgeon quickly follows. The doctor in question is good at his job. He performs one of the first successful caesarian sections, saving the life of both mother and baby; during numerous postings in Mauritius, St Helena, Corfu, Jamaica, Canada and elsewhere, he fights tirelessly for better treatment of the poor and the sick, his hot temper and impulsiveness bringing him into conflict with the authorities. At one time, he's stripped of his rank, but rises again to become Inspector General of Hospitals. Eventually he retires, reluctantly, to England, where he dies of dysentery in 1865.

Dr James Barry led a full and interesting life, but there's not much to distinguish him from many others in colonial service at the time - except for one not insignificant detail. The celebrated doctor was not really James at all. 'He' was Margaret Ann Bulkley, born in Cork some time in the 1790s (the actual date, like so much else in her story, remains indeterminate), and her true identity was only discovered after her death, when it caused a Victorian sensation. So why did she do it?

Was she transgender at a time when that wouldn't have been understood? Hermaphrodite or otherwise gender neutral?

Or was it that "the decision to live as a man was motivated more by ambition than identity" and that being male simply allowed her to live a richer, fuller life than was possible for women at the time?

The authors of this new biography touch only lightly on these questions, concluding that "she may have been bi-gender, but we have no evidence for this". What they have discovered is evidence that Margaret's family, ruined by financial worries, came up with a conspiracy to pass the young woman off as a man in order that she might become a doctor, adopting the name of her uncle, a renowned Irish painter.

The plan was not without risk. There were persistent rumours at medical school that he was actually a pre-pubescent boy on account of "his short stature, his slightness of build, his unbroken voice, his delicate features and smooth skin". The servant women on St Helena were more savvy. Presented with the same clues a few years later, they came to a different conclusion - the new army doctor was really a woman.

One tried to spy on him in the bathhouse in search of proof and got a thrashing for her trouble. Barry "was not a person to be emollient when his temper was up, no matter what the cost". He fought at least one duel and took a libel action to contest allegations that he was gay.

Others too may have guessed the truth. Lord Buchan, an early champion of Barry in Edinburgh, held progressive views on women's education; so was he in on the ruse? "Perhaps Buchan knew James' secret - perhaps he had guessed, or perhaps Margaret had loved and respected him enough to confess". Those three uses of "perhaps" point to the central problem in the book. It's based on more than a decade of research by South African urologist Dr Michael du Preez, who, since retirement in 2001, has read and travelled widely in search of his quarry.

It was he who identified Margaret as the best candidate for the famous Dr Barry and after gaining access to previously unpublished letters, was able to piece together elements of the family conspiracy. This is what distinguishes this book from previous biographies of the subject. But whilst we might now know more about the basic facts thanks to Du Preez's detective work, the meaning of them remains hidden and what is unknown has to be compensated for with hypothesis.

There are frequent speculations in this book as to what Margaret must have been doing and thinking and feeling at certain points, starting in the very first chapter where the young girl "watched, hypnotised, as an elegant Royal Navy cutter eased through the morning mist towards the north channel of the river Lee". These frequent intrusions into real people's inner monologues belong more in a work of fiction than history.

When Dr Barry fights that aforementioned duel, the narrative goes into overdrive: "From the corner of his eye, James could see that the surgeon had his instrument case open… James' arm shot up, rigid, the pistol poised, his opponent's face a pale smudge above the barrel…"

This account, the notes say, is based on a "heavily fictionalised" version published in 1938 in the Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps, but the authors say they accept this part as "reliable" because the author had spoken a few years previously to members of the other duellist's family. But even if he had, this was more than 100 years after the event and they could hardly have been privy to what Barry saw.

Some of the other decisions taken by the author are inexplicable to the point of being bizarre. A prologue describes the woman who laid out the body of Dr Barry after death as a "hardened creature who cared mainly for money", noting how "the smell in the room was enough to unsettle even her strong stomach". We're even told that she "gave the corpse a melancholy glance" before commencing work.

Nearly 400 pages later comes an appendix entitled: 'Who Discovered Dr Barry's Secret?' In this, the authors acknowledge that the actual identity of the woman who laid out Barry's body is unknown. The portrait of the anonymous layer-out in the prologue is therefore entirely fanciful. So why include this account as if it happened like that?

Nowhere do the authors explain their method, turning what could have been a short snappy account of an extraordinary life and an incredible woman into a bloated doorstop of a book that frustrates by taking liberties with facts that needed no sensationalising because they were fascinating enough already.

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