James Barry was born sometime between 1780 and 1799, probably in Ireland, and christened Margaret Ann Bulkley. The Bulkley family came into financial hardship when Barry was a teenager. His father was imprisoned and his elder brother, who was married, was unable to support Barry and his mother, Mary-Ann. However Barry’s maternal uncle, also called James Barry, was a renowned artist and a professor of painting at the Royal Academy of London. Surviving letters of Mary-Ann Bulkley to her brother’s liberal-minded friends in London show that they planned together to get the young James Barry (then still Margaret) into medical school. Mary-Ann Bulkley and her child travelled to Edinburgh in November of 1809. Another letter from a solicitor indicates that young James Barry had assumed his male identity on embarkation of the voyage, possibly posing as the elder James Barry’s son and Mary-Ann Bulkley’s nephew.
James Barry began his studies at the University of Edinburgh Medical School and qualified with an MD in 1812. He then moved to London and signed up to the Autumn Course at the United Hospitals of Guy’s and St Thomas’. On the 2nd of July in 1813 Barry was examined for the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1813 and qualified as a Regimental Assistant. On the 6th of July the British Army commissioned him as a Hospital Assistant and he was posted to Chelsea and some time later to Plymouth, where he was promoted to Assistant Staff Surgeon. It is possible that he served at the Battle of Waterloo. Barry also served in British India and South Africa, arriving at Cape Town between 1815 and 1817.
Within a few weeks of his arrival at Cape Town, James Barry was made the Medical Inspector. In this role he arranged a better and more sanitary water system for the colony. He also performed the first successful Cesarean-section in Africa, in which both mother and baby lived. The baby boy was christened James Barry Munnik in his honour. Unfortunately Barry also managed to upset a few people by criticising their performance in medical matters. Barry left Cape Town in 1828 and was then posted to Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago, and the island of St Helena. At this stage Barry was the Inspector General, H.M. Army Hospitals. However on St Helena he became embroiled in the island’s politics, got into trouble and was sent home, demoted to Staff Surgeon. He was then posted to the West Indies. There Barry concentrated on medicine and management, and was eventually promoted to Principal Medical Officer. In 1845 Barry contracted yellow fever and returned to England to recover.
In 1846 James Barry was posted to Malta. While there he dealt with a threatening cholera epidemic, which fully eventuated in 1850. In 1851 Barry left Malta and went to Corfu, now holding the rank of Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals. In 1857 he left for Canda to become Inspector-General of Hospitals. There he improved the food, sanitation and medical care for the soldiers and their families, as well as for the prisoners and lepers there.
James Barry retired in 1864, supposedly against his wishes and returned to England. He died a year later on the 25th of July 1865, aged 75 or 76. The woman who dressed his remains discovered that he was female-bodied, and reported this information after the funeral. The discovery became known when letters were exchanged between the General Registry Office, a Major McKinnon, Barry’s doctor and the person responsible for the death certificate (upon which Barry is recorded as male). Many people claimed to have “known all along” when they found out, although Major McKinnon, who knew Barry for years, states that he never had any such suspicions. Barry was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, the tombstone bearing the name James Barry with his full military rank.
Throughout his career, James Barry worked consistently to improve the life of the common soldiers. He introduced pears to the military diet to improve nutrition, and fought for many other changes to better their living conditions. Barry was said to have a very professional skill and good bedside manner. However he could also be short-tempered, and once got into an argument with Florence Nightingale. Barry had no patience for unnecessary suffering and irritated more indifferent comrades with his dogged determination to improve both medicine and management. Barry himself was a vegeterian and teetotaler. His close companions were his dogs and his manservant, John. James Barry is remembered for his great efforts to improve the lives of not only the soldiers in his care but the native inhabitants of Briton’s colonial outposts.