Famous 19th Century British Doctor Kept A Lifelong Secret That LGBT Activists Are Now Celebrating

Published July 25, 2017

The acclaimed surgeon concealed his biological identity from his colleagues as long as he lived.

Barry James

WikipediaA portrait of Barry, and a photo of Barry (man on left).

As Dr. James Barry lay on his deathbed in July of 1865, those attending to him discovered something new: Dr. Barry was born a woman.

Indeed, the English surgeon — who performed one of the first cesarean sections where both mother and infant survived, who saved countless lives working for the British Army — was born Margaret Ann Bulkley, and had abandoned that identity early on in his life.

And now, as the Guardian reported, English officials have deemed Barry’s grave a site of historical significance in shaping the country’s LGBTQ history.

On Tuesday, Historic England announced 16 sites that had made historic contributions to the country’s diversity in gender and sexual orientation — a diversity that officials believe needs celebration.

“[It’s] vital that we remember all the communities that have shaped our past. I am delighted that we are recognizing the significant contribution made by these outstanding people and protecting the places where they lived and worked for future generations,” heritage minister John Glen said.

While relisted as a heritage site this week, Barry’s gravestone was first listed in April 2012 — roughly 200 years after Barry had received his medical degree. At the time, women did not have access to most realms of education, and could not practice medicine.

Barry’s interest in medicine came in his teens — when his family fell on hard times and moved to London. There, Barry would meet the men who supported the teen’s goal of receiving an education. When one of these men, Royal Academician and painter James Barry, passed, Barry — still going by Bulkley at this point — assumed the deceased’s name and identity.

From then on, Barry would conceal his biological identity with an overcoat — though his high-pitched voice, slight stature and soft skin led many of his peers in medical school to think Barry, who received his degree at age 22, was too young to be in medical school.

Soon enough, Barry traveled the world working for the British military — first as a hospital assistant and then as a staff surgeon. His work would take him all the way from Cape Town, South Africa, to Mauritius, and have him meet the likes of Lord Charles Somerset, Cape Town’s governor, and Florence Nightingale, who described the hot-tempered Barry as “the most hardened creature I ever met.”

But beneath that external hardness was a man who fought for the vulnerable. Indeed, throughout the course of his life Barry took on the powers that be in prisons, barracks, and asylums, demanding the improvement of sanitary conditions and institutional management. While in colonial Cape Town, Barry treated everyone who sought his help: the wealthy and the poor, the slaves and the slave owners.

News of Barry’s biological identity became public soon after his death, when letters sent by his doctor, Major D. R. McKinnon, leaked. In one correspondence, Mckinnon wrote that Barry’s identity was “none of [his] business,” a view that would not officially resonate with British powers that be until at least 1967, when the Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalized homosexuality.

Next, read about a professor who is using ancient porn to make the case for greater LGBTQ acceptance.

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