Dr James Barry

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3, Key stage 4

Time period: Empire and Industry 1750-1850, Victorians 1850-1901

Curriculum topics: LGBTQ+ Histories, Medicine through time, Political and social reform, Victorians

Suggested inquiry questions: What do these documents reveal about the life of Dr James Barry? What do these documents reveal about transgender histories? Why was Dr James Barry significant to the history of medicine?

Potential activities: Create an annotated timeline using the Background notes and map to show the career of Dr James Barry. Explore the blog posts in this lesson for further detail on Dr James Barry and current debates concerning his history. Explore further online original documents on James Barry from the link to the Wellcome collections.

Why was he significant in 19th century medicine?

James Barry, born in 1795 in Cork, Ireland, became a leading doctor with a glittering medical career who did much to raise standards of medical care in and outside the army. He chose to exclusively live and identify as a man, having been assigned female at birth. Sources in The National Archives show how his biological sex became a matter of discussion amongst some of his contemporaries after his death in 1865 and that it was publicly reported. Such an intrusion into a person’s personal life is completely unacceptable today.  

Archives can reveal historical sources for LGBTQ+ lives that can help us to understand their stories and how they were treated in society. Sometimes, these histories appear to be ‘hiding in plain sight’, and other times are more difficult to find. 

Our understanding of gender and sexuality has changed a lot since the times of James Barry. ‘Transgender’, meaning someone whose gender identity differs from the sex that they were assigned at birth, was not a term used in the 1800s. However, research has highlighted the significance of James Barry as a transgender man in the history of medicine as both a pioneer and reformer. The text here uses the pronouns he/him in accordance with how Dr James Barry identified himself throughout his life. In the first document shown here, which reveals his appointment as Inspector General of Hospitals in 1857, he signed as ‘Dr James Barry, M.D. Esquire.’

Use this lesson to explore archival sources relating to the life of Dr James Barry.

Click on the map above to explore the different places where Dr James Barry lived throughout his life. Read an accessible description of the map here.


Tasks

Source 1

Extract from Dr James Barry’s personal army service record. This page shows his training at Edinburgh University in medicine, Catalogue ref: WO 25/3910. 

  • When did Dr James Barry start his studies at Edinburgh University?  
  • When did he finish? 
  • What subjects did he study at Edinburgh University? 
  • Why do you think he studied ‘Botany’ and ‘Medical jurisprudence’? Check the meaning of these terms if necessary. 
  • What practical training in medicine did James Barry do as part of his studies? Why was this important? 
  • Why did he study ‘Greek and natural & moral philosophy’ do you think? 
  • How do you explain the additional comments written on this document by others? 
  • Can you suggest any other sources which could be used concerning James Barry’s medical training? 
  • How different is James Barry’s training to that of a doctor in the 18th century or today, according to your own knowledge/research? 

Source 2

Extract from a document entitled ‘Memorandum of the Services of Dr James Barry Inspector General of Hospitals’. This was written by Dr Barry at the end of his career after serving in Canada when he returned to London in 1859, although the date stamp on the document is not clear, Catalogue ref: WO 138/1. 

In this extract Dr James Barry refers to an important rebellion of the enslaved on the island of Jamaica 1831-32. 

  • What does this statement indicate about James Barry’s age when he started his degree in medicine at Edinburgh University in Source 1? 
  • What does this extract infer about his qualities and skills as a doctor? 
  • Find out about the uprising by the enslaved in Jamaica in 1831/2 mentioned by Dr James Barry and the role of its leader Samuel Sharpe and Sir Willoughby Cotton. 
  • What are the advantages/disadvantages of using personal testimony as historical evidence? 

Source 3

A second extract from a document entitled ‘Memorandum of the Services of Dr James Barry Inspector General of Hospitals’. This was written by Dr Barry at the end of his career after serving in Canada when he returned to London in 1859, although the date stamp on the document is not clear, Catalogue ref: WO 138/1 

In this extract Dr James Barry makes refers to the Crimean War (1854-56) fought by an alliance of Britain, France, Turkey and Sardinia against Russia. Whilst serving during the Crimean War, Dr James Barry was supposed to have argued with Florence Nightingale. 

  • Find out about the Crimean war and Lord Raglan, the commander of British troops mentioned by Dr Barry in this extract. 
  • What does this extract infer about Dr Barry’s work and service during the Crimean War? 

Source 4

This letter from Dr James Barry to the army General Commanding Officer, 25th January 1859, refers to a disagreement between Dr Barry and two church officials for the Church of St John’s in Montreal, Canada.  Catalogue ref: PRO 30/46/18. 

Dr James Barry was promoted to the highest rank in the army as Inspector General of Hospitals in the British colony of Canada in 1857.  

The disagreement concerned the timing of the church Service held for the army. The churchmen complained to the Bishop of Montreal that Dr Barry had ‘with such violence of manner and language, accused the Archdeacon and me [the Dean] of refusing to allow the military service to be changed from 2pm to 9am, stating that we were callous to the spiritual welfare of her Majesty’s soldiers, with much more to the same effect, and finishing with a threat to publish us in the London Times newspaper’. 

  • What does the source infer about Dr James Barry’s personality/character? 
  • What does the letter suggest about his attitude towards the soldiers he was responsible for? 
  • Can you explain why he might want to change the attendance time ‘on sanitary grounds’?  
  • How does Dr Barry’s account of the event compare to that of the Church officials quoted in the caption above? 
  • What evidence is there that the disagreement became more intense? 
  • What does this source reveal about the nature of personal testimony in history? 

Source 5

A third extract from a document entitled ‘Memorandum of the Services of Dr James Barry Inspector General of Hospitals’. This was written by Dr Barry at the end of his career after serving in Canada when he returned to London in 1859, although the date stamp on the document is not clear, Catalogue ref: WO 138/1 

  • Refer to the ‘Background’ notes to check on the locations where Dr Barry served during his career. 
  • What difficulties did Dr Barry have to overcome with his different postings abroad? 
  • Can you think of any difficulties not mentioned in the source? 
  • What does this personal statement infer about his character/personality? 
  • What does this extract suggest about how Dr Barry felt about his work and career? 
  • Can you work out Dr Barry’s age at this time? [Use the Background, Sources 1 & 5 to help]. 

Source 6

Letter to J.B. Gibson, Director General for Army Medical Department from Senior Surgeon D.R. McKinnon, Major. 25 July 1865, Catalogue ref: WO 138/1 

  • What was the cause of Dr Barry’s death? 
  • What does this letter infer about army record keeping? 

Source 7

Letter from George Graham, Registrar General at General Register Office for the registration of births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales, to Staff Surgeon D.R. McKinnon [see Source 6]. 23 August 1865, Catalogue ref: WO 138/1 

  • Who is George Graham? 
  • Why is he writing to Staff Surgeon D.R. McKinnon? 
  • What is shocking/surprising about this letter? 

Source 8

Extract from a letter from Dr McKinnon in reply to George Graham [see Source 7], 24 August 1865, Catalogue ref: WO 138/1 

  • What are McKinnon’s views concerning Dr Barry? 
  • How do his opinions differ from those of the woman mentioned in the extract? 
  • Is there anything shocking/surprising about this source? 
  • What does this source infer about the life of Dr James Barry? 

Source 9

Extract from a letter written by Edward Bradford, Deputy-Inspector-General of Hospitals published under the heading, ‘The Reputed Female Army Surgeon’ in the Medical Times & Gazette, 9 September 1865, Catalogue ref: WO 138/1 

Shortly after Dr Barry’s death, his history was reported without respect for his personal life in this publication.  

  • Why do you think Edward Bradford sent this letter to be published in the Medical Times & Gazette? 
  • Is Edward Bradford’s action appropriate today? 
  • Which qualities outlined in this extract infer that Dr Barry was a highly effective doctor? 
  • Which aspects of his personality reportedly caused him to conflict with authority?  
  • Do these aspects explain events described in Source 4? 
  • Can you suggest 4 words to describe Dr Barry’s personality? 
  • Which pronouns does this extract use to describe Dr Barry? 
  • Does the extract reveal anything about how James Barry chose to live his life? 
  • Do you accept Bradford’s conclusion about the ‘real marvel of his (James Barry’s) history’?   
  • Is Dr James Barry’s significance based on other reasons inferred by the sources?

Source 10

Extract from the Daily Mail entitled ‘Women who pose as men: An army Surgeon’s Career’, 27 August 1910, from Dr James Barry’s personal file, WO 25/3910 

Please note that the tone and language used in article are of their time and unacceptable today. The questions are based on a short extract taken from the article. The whole article is also available for further investigation. 

  • What is the subject of this article? 
  • Can you define the following words in the extract? Impersonation; suspected; confessed; sphinx. 
  • How does this choice of language set the tone/attitude of the article? 
  • Why is E. Roger’s book (published in 1881) called “A Modern Sphinx” do you think? 
  • Why can an article like this be considered shocking and inappropriate today? 
  • Does this source reveal anything about attitudes in society in 1910? 

Background

According to EE Ottoman, after leaving Ireland, James Barry wrote in 1809 that he was ‘sailing to Edinburgh with his aunt’ who ‘wished to have a Gentleman to take care of her on Board Ship and to have one in a strange country’.

Dr James Barry’s professional service record for the army (WO 25/3910) gives us an outline of his career after qualifying as a doctor at Edinburgh University in 1812. He qualified as a surgeon in 1813 ‘before the College of Surgeons’ in London. He entered the army at the age of fourteen, was commissioned as an army hospital assistant and stationed at military hospitals in Chelsea and Plymouth, and later made Assistant Staff Surgeon in December 1815.  

Barry was sent to the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) in 1817 as a medical officer, and went with the Governor, Lord Charles Somerset, to inspect the frontier settlements. He was then appointed physician to the Governor’s household in 1818. He became Assistant Staff Surgeon in 1822 and Surgeon of the Forces in 1827. During his time at the Cape, Barry did much to improve the sanitary conditions in army hospitals with better hygiene and diet for the patients and helped to reduce the spread of disease. He also attempted to improve the regulation of medicines sold. At this time, Dr Barry also performed an early successful caesarean section on a society woman, Wilhelmina Munnik, saving the life of both mother and baby. He was also accused of having a relationship with Lord Charles Somerset, which caused a scandal at the time.  

He went on to serve in Mauritius from 1828 and was recalled owing to the illness of Sir Charles Somerset, who later died. Dr Barry was then posted to Jamaica in 1831/2 and returned on leave to England in 1835. As Principal Medical Officer, he was later ordered to St Helena (1836), and then to the Windward and Leeward Islands for 12 months. Later in Antigua, Barbados (1838) and Trinidad, he was in medical charge of the troops while the Inspector General was absent. He returned to England having contracted yellow fever in Trinidad. He resumed service in Malta as Principal Medical Officer, where according ‘A memorandum of the Services of Dr James Barry, Inspector General of Hospitals’, (WO 138/1): ‘I also had the thanks of the Duke of Wellington for my services during [which] that island (Malta) was visited by the cholera’.  

After this, Dr James Barry was promoted to the rank of Deputy Inspector General in the Ionian Islands when he cared for sick soldiers sent to Corfu, wounded during the Crimean War. Barry went on to serve in Crimea for three months where he allegedly had a public spat with Florence Nightingale. After his exceptional work in Greece, which included supporting soldiers of his regiment in Piraeus with ‘medicines, comforts and supplies’, he was also praised by Admiral Lyons for ‘commanding the “Modeste” for my zeal and service having discovered the cause of the malignant fever on board that vessel and for my successful treatment of the sick and the purification of the ship’ (WO 138/1).   

He was promoted to the highest rank in the army as Inspector General of Hospitals in the British colony of Canada in 1857. He continued to reform living conditions for soldiers and prisoners and those suffering from leprosy. He returned to London after contracting a severe case of bronchitis in 1859, arriving in March 1860 after a difficult sea voyage. He lived in London in retirement and died in 1865. He was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery following a military funeral.

In a letter from Dr McKinnon replying to George Graham on 24 August 1865 (WO 138/1), it is mentioned that a woman claimed that Dr James Barry ‘was a female’ and wanted money to keep the ‘great secret’. Dr Barry left instructions that his body was not to be examined after his death. In documents he consistently identified himself as male and uses male pronouns. He signs himself as ‘Dr James Barry’ and refers to himself as ‘gentleman’. In character, he appears to have had a reputation for being highly outspoken. The document (PRO 30/46/18) concerning a clash he had with church authorities in Canada gives us a little window into his personality but also highlights his constant concern for the soldiers of his regiment. 

The documents reveal Dr James Barry not as woman living as a man choosing a medical career, but as a man living a man’s life within the society he found himself in.  

Barry could not have used the term ‘transgender’to describe himself in the nineteenth century. However, from today’s perspective, he would appear to be a significant figure in the context of trans history. According to Jack Doyle, in his article ‘“The Trans Take”: Towards a Transgender Public History’ (2019), ‘lives like James Barry’s are fascinating precisely because they reveal the ways in which trans and gender-nonconforming people have navigated, embodied, and survived gender across historical and cultural contexts.’  

In some cases, we find out about stories like that of Dr James Barry because their privacy has been invaded, in this case after death. The history of some transgender people may remain untold without the legacy of personal records. Hopefully, the archival material held in The National Archives relating to Dr James Barry can serve to reveal the power of this history and its importance for identity. 


Teachers' notes

This lesson is based on the life of Dr James Barry and his importance as a transgender man and as a significant doctor in the history of medicine. Our understanding of gender and sexuality has changed a lot since the times of Dr James Barry. ‘Transgender’, for example, would not have been a term used in the 1800s. These records reflect the period that produced them, and some may find their content upsetting in terms of their tone and attitude. The text in the lesson uses the pronouns he/him in accordance with how Dr James Barry identified himself throughout his life and how his contemporaries referred to him. 

To begin with, students examine an extract from Dr Barry’s personal army service record revealing his course of study at Edinburgh University in medicine. This allows them to compare his medical training to that required in the 18th century and today. The second source is an extract from a document entitled ‘Memorandum of the Services of Dr James Barry Inspector General of Hospitals’. Here Dr Barry refers to an important rebellion of the enslaved in the island of Jamaica 1831-32.  

The third source, again in Dr Barry’s words, describes his service in the Crimean War (1854-56). It is interesting for students to explore these extracts as they help pinpoint Dr Barry’s career in its historical context. They help reveal his significance as a reformer and medic as discussed in the Background notes with reference to his ‘Memorandum of Services’. 

The fourth source is a letter concerning Dr Barry’s posting to the colony of Canada. This possibly provides a glimpse into his personality. In the fifth source, students read about Dr Barry’s reflections on his period of service in 1859. Subsequent sources concern correspondence between George Graham, Registrar General at General Register Office for the registration of births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales, and Staff Surgeon Dr McKinnon who registered the death of Dr James Barry.  

The final two sources show how Dr Barry’s biological sex became a matter of discussion amongst some of his contemporaries after his death in 1865. They show how it was publicly reported in the Medical Times & Gazette and later in 1910 in the Daily Mail newspaper as part of a prurient exposé of ‘Women who pose as men’. These sources could also provide the opportunity to extend discussions concerning the role of the press and the Human Rights Act Article 8: protecting a right to respect a person’s private and family life. 

Further questions/activities: 

  • What can The National Archives documents reveal about the lives of LGBTQ+ people in the 19th century? 
  • Did you find any aspects of these documents shocking or surprising? 
  • Why are stories about LGBTQ+ people difficult to find in The National Archives? 
  • What is the value of using archives/museums to learn about the history LGBTQ+ people? 
  • Use the blogs listed below to explore current debates and discussions concerning the life of Dr James Barry and his position in LBGTQ+ history.  
  • Use the websites for further information, research and resources to discover more about LBGTQ+ history and other LBGTQ+ stories. 

Sources

  1. Extract from Dr James Barry’s personal army service record. Catalogue ref: WO 25/3910. 
  2. Extract from a document entitled ‘Memorandum of the Services of Dr James Barry Inspector General of Hospitals. Catalogue ref: WO 138/1. 
  3. A second extract from a document entitled ‘Memorandum of the Services of Dr James Barry Inspector General of Hospitals. Catalogue ref: WO 138/1 
  4. Letter from Dr James Barry to the army General Commanding Officer, 25th January,1859, Catalogue ref: PRO 30/46/18. 
  5. A third extract from a document entitled ‘Memorandum of the Services of Dr James Barry Inspector General of Hospitals, Catalogue ref: WO 138/1 
  6. Letter to J.B. Gibson, Director General for Army Medical Department from Senior Surgeon D.R. McKinnon, Major, July 1865, Catalogue ref: WO 138/1 
  7. Letter from George Graham, Registrar General at General Register Office to Staff Surgeon D.R. McKinnon [see Source 6], 23 August 1865, Catalogue ref: WO 138/1 
  8. Letter from Dr McKinnon replying to George Graham, 24 August 1865, Catalogue ref: WO 138/1 
  9. Extract from a letter written by Edward Bradford, Deputy-Inspector-General of Hospitals published under the heading, ‘The Reputed Female Army Surgeon’ in the Medical Times & Gazette, 9 September 1865, Catalogue ref: WO 138/1 
  10. Extract from the Daily Mail entitled ‘Women who pose as men: An army Surgeon’s Career’, 27 August 1910, from Dr James Barry’s personal file, WO 25/3910 

Connections to curriculum

Key stage 4 

AQA GCSE History: Britain: Health and the people: c1000 to the present day 

Edexcel GCSE History: Medicine in Britain, c1250 present 

OCR GCSE History: War and British Society c.790 to c.2010  

School programmes of study for Primary/Secondary PSHE where appropriate. 

Key stage 3 

Ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901 

The history of Dr James Barry could be explored as part of a study on empire through selected sources and transcripts found here. 


External links

Blogs

Websites

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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3, Key stage 4

Time period: Empire and Industry 1750-1850, Victorians 1850-1901

Curriculum topics: LGBTQ+ Histories, Medicine through time, Political and social reform, Victorians

Suggested inquiry questions: What do these documents reveal about the life of Dr James Barry? What do these documents reveal about transgender histories? Why was Dr James Barry significant to the history of medicine?

Potential activities: Create an annotated timeline using the Background notes and map to show the career of Dr James Barry. Explore the blog posts in this lesson for further detail on Dr James Barry and current debates concerning his history. Explore further online original documents on James Barry from the link to the Wellcome collections.

Related resources

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Florence Nightingale

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Victorian Health Reform

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LGBTQ+ history in the archives

How much can police records reveal about the lives of LGBTQ+ people in the past?