James Miranda Steuart Barry was born in 1789 to Jeremiah and Mary-Ann Bulkley. James was not his given name. He adopted the name of his late uncle as a teenager. His uncle has been a famous painter and left James with a substantial inheritance.
The youngest member of the Bulkley family was named Juliana. She was raised as James’s sister, but it was later believed that she was his biological child.
In 1809, James left for the University of Edinburgh to become a doctor. James was short with a high pitched voice and “effeminate” features. Upon his arrival, the university was hesitant to accept him believing him to still be a child.
James earned his MD in 1812. In 1813, he became a surgeon. That same year, he joined the British Army and was sent to the Royal Military Hospital in Plymouth.
He was sent to Cape Town, South Africa in 1816. There he treated Lord Charles Somerset’s daughter. Her recovery was the beginning of a close friendship between James and Charles. James was appointed Colonial Medical Inspector in 1822.
James used his position to lobby for better sanitation and water. He also fought for better treatment of the enslaved peoples of South Africa. He was an advocate for the mentally ill, prisoners and lepers.
James performed the first successful c-section. The mother and child both lived. The child was named James.
James was stationed in Mauritius in 1828. When Charles became deathly ill the following year, James abandoned his post and stayed with Charles until he died 2 years later.
James returned to his military duty in 1831 rising in the ranks to Inspector General of Hospitals. He worked with Florence Nightingale, but the two did not get along.
James retired from the army on July 19, 1859. He died of dysentery on July 25, 1865. During his life, James had given strict orders that upon his death, he be wrapped in the sheets in which he lay without any inspection of his body.
This seemed a strange request to those he worked and served with, but James was a unusual man. His wishes were not followed and a charwoman was given the task of cleaning and dressing James for burial.
She discovered that James had been born female and that there were signs he had given birth, most likely to Juliana. When the charwoman was not paid for her preparation of James’s body for burial, she told a newspaper who published the information.
The British Army sealed James’s military records for 100 years and his personal doctor refused to speak on the information. Letters written in James’s late teens seem to verify his gender at birth. It is believed that James lived as a female until shortly before leaving for college in 1809.
It is rumored that the relationship between James and Charles might have been a love affair. There is some speculation that James was intersex, but there is no evidence to prove this theory.
There is no way to know the true reason for James’s transition. He may have had to live as a male because women were not allowed to attend medical school or become doctors. He may have been intersex. Most likely, he was a transgender male in a time when this was would have made him a criminal.
Despite this, James lived an extraordinary life and worked to make life better for his patients all over the world.
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