Happy Ada Lovelace Day! As my contribution to this international effort, I submit the following story:
The Perfect Gentleman.
We'll likely never know the whole story behind the incredible life of Dr. James Miranda Barry.
Based on the best available information, she was probably born Margaret Ann Bulkley although the actual year of her birth is still open to speculation (somewhere around 1791 seems to be the best guess). Margaret's mother, Mary Ann Bulkley (nee Barry) was the sister of noted artist James Barry and her father was likely the Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda. Despite her mother's illustrious family and friends, Margaret had some major disadvantages from the very beginning. Not only was she illegitimate, raised in poverty, and Catholic, she was also a girl at a time when higher education for women was unthinkable.
Posing as a boy was almost certainly her mother's idea originally. After coming to London to seek her brother's financial help (her husband had gone bankrupt), Mary Ann persuaded David Stewart Erskine, the 11th earl of Buchan, to finance the education of her brilliant son. As a professional gentleman, Margaret (now renamed James Barry after her uncle) would be in an excellent position to support his/her impoverished mother. Whatever the original reason for the disguise, it worked incredibly well. At the presumed age of ten (but likely a bit older), James/Miranda was entered as a medical student at the University of Edinburgh Medical School and graduated a scant two years later. Although the University initially balked at granting a medical degree to someone so young, Buchan's influence forced the Senate to reconsider.
By 1813, James Miranda Barry was a civilian doctor serving in London's hospital wards. Unfortunately, she already had difficulty being taken seriously due to her youthful appearance and high-pitched voice. Since she was apparently only fourteen (but likely much older), patients weren't reassured by a doctor who had yet to reach puberty. Joining the army seemed a logical next step for her. As an army physician, she would have an unprecedented opportunity to travel the world and still have the relative independence to practice medicine in a way that civilian doctors never could. Buchan had to use his influence to persuade the Army Medical Board to accept James' credentials (minimum age at the time was twenty-one).
And it was quite a medical career. By 1816, she was posted to the Cape of Good Hope colony in what is now South Africa. By all accounts,James Barry was often temperamental and easily offended. While many of her military colleagues were put off by her attitude, her genuine compassion for her patients was clear enough. She had no reservations about treating patients from all social classes, including prostitutes, syphilis cases, and slaves. Her effeminate appearance often attracted attention though. One contemporary report described her as "the most skilled of physicians and the most wayward of men. In appearance a beardless lad, with an unmistakably Scottish type of countenance, reddish hair and high cheek-bones. There was a certain effeminacy in his manner which he was always striving to overcome". She cultivated a reputation as a skilled marksman and a lady's man to play up her manliness.
It was also during her time stationed at the Cape colony that she entered into a deep, and apparently intimate relationship with the Cape's governor, Lord Charles Somerset. An attractive aristocrat, Somerset made James Barry his personal physician and gave her an apartment in his large residence. She saved his life after he contracted cholera although the full extent of what passed between them is still a matter of speculation. There were certainly rumours that the two of them were having a homosexual affair and Lady Somerset was particularly outraged at how much time they spent together (not that the truth would have been any more reassuring). Word got back to London and a royal commission was set up to look into the scandal. Although James Barry was later exonerated, Somerset returned to England in 1826.
The rest of Barry's medical career was marked by numerous triumphs and setbacks. She was a brilliant surgeon and introduced strict standards of cleanliness in dealing with patients that predated Lister and Semmelweiss by decades. Her radical treatments for leprosy and other tropical diseases reformed all the hospitals in which she worked. She also had a reputation for insubordination and frequent unauthorized absences. By the time of the Crimean War, she had risen to the rank of Inspector-General. Although she was stationed in Corfu, she took "French leave" (unauthorized absence from her post) to investigate the appalling death rates among patients in Florence Nightingale's hospital. What she found there (and her famous clash with Nightingale herself) eventually led to the radical reform of battlefield medicine.
Despite her long and brilliant medical career, James Barry's history of insubordination and unauthorized absences eventually caught up with her. In 1864, she was forced into retirement and even denied the knighthood that a doctor of her reputation would traditionally have been given. She spent the remaining years of her life as a bachelor doctor tended only by her long-time manservant, "Black John" (both pictured above). Only after dying of dysentery on July 25, 1865, did the full truth about James Miranda Barry come out when the women who laid out the corpse discovered her secret. Not even "Black John" had known although others would claim that they long suspected it (Lord Somerset was deceased by this time). Even more remarkably, there was evidence of a caesarean scar on her body which suggested that one of her "French leaves" had been intended to hide a pregnancy. Whether it was Somerset's child or part of another relationship is another mystery that will likely never be solved. There was a certain irony in this revelation considering that James Barry had performed one of the first successful caesarean surgeries earlier in her career (both mother and child survived which was unprecedented at the time). In typical fashion, the British Army sealed all records relating to James Barry until 100 years after her death. Only in recent decades have many of the facts relating to her remarkable life become known. She is buried in Kensal Green cemetery in London with full military honours under the name she held all her life.
Despite her amazing career and medical accomplishments, James Barry's reputation as a medical pioneer has been largely eclipsed by her life-long disguise. Although there have been other notable cases of gender impersonation before and since, James Barry has become a cultural icon. She has been the subject of numerous books (fiction and non-fiction alike), plays, and television dramatizations. After numerous delays, a full-length movie based on the love affair between James Barry and Charles Somerset appears to be underway.
I'm looking forward to it.