A Note on Dr. James Barry

Tracy Wilson

Portrait of Dr. James Barry Wellcome Library, London. http://wellcomeimages.org. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only license CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

We've gotten requests from quite a few listeners today for an episode on Dr. James Barry, largely thanks to a video that's currently circulating around social media. Barry had a successful surgical career that included one of the world's first caesarean sections in which both the mother and the baby survived. After Barry died, the person who prepared his body for burial reported that he was female, possibly with the hope of being paid to keep that report a secret.

The video, however, doesn't describe Barry as a man or use the pronoun "he." It describes him as the UK's first female doctor: a woman who deceived others by pretending to be a man. This isn't a good representation at all of who Barry was or how he lived. Particularly by stressing the idea of deception, it also reinforces damaging, dangerous and untrue stereotypes about trans people. The idea that trans people are maliciously deceiving others contributes to alarmingly high rates of anti-trans hate crimes and violence. "Trans panic," an idea rooted in a sense of deception, is even allowed a legal defense in some places.

There are certainly some aspects of Barry's life and identity that are unclear or ambiguous, and about which there continues to be lots of discussion among both historians and doctors. Some historians living today do assert that he adopted a disguise in order to become a doctor, a field not open to women at the time. (Most of these accounts frame this as a practical measure, not as a malicious deception, though.) A few conclude, based in part on a letter from Barry's own doctor — Major D.R. McKinnon, who also had filed his death certificate — that he was intersex.

But, increasingly, others point to a number of aspects of his life as evidence that he was a trans man. There are plenty of historical accounts of women disguising themselves as men for all sorts of reasons, including education, military service and espionage, but these disguises are almost always temporary. Barry, on the other hand, consistently referred to himself as a man in person and in writing for the whole of his adult life, including after his retirement. According to some accounts, he also asked to be buried in the clothes he had died in, suggesting that he wanted his body to remain private. The word "transgender" didn't exist when Barry lived — its first appearance in writing was in 1974, and Barry died in 1865 — but with all that in mind, it's probably the best word to describe him. It's certainly both inaccurate and disrespectful to refer to him by a name and gender that neither he nor anyone who knew him used for the whole of his career.

We've been reluctant to do a podcast episode on Barry. Regardless of our level of care, two cisgender women telling the story of a man who was reported after his death to have been assigned female at birth has the potential to reinforce the same damaging stereotypes this video does. It's also a story we've told previously in other episodes — something that, four years later, we would handle completely differently if we were doing them today for precisely that reason.

Some reflections on Dr. James Barry that better reflect his life and the complexities around it: