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A compendium of queer people in the 19th and 20th centuries // Drawn and researched by Michele Rosenthal

James  Barry

James Barry 1789to –1865

Irish surgeon in the British military, and one of the first European doctors to perform a successful Caesarean section. Details of his early life are hard to verify, but he was probably born in Cork around 1789. He and his mother had little money, and so they conspired to send him to medical school, despite the fact that he’d been assigned female at birth. With help from friends of the family, they moved to Edinburgh in 1809, where Barry transitioned and studied medicine under the name of his uncle, James Barry the painter. By 1813, he had qualified as a surgeon and a Regimental Assistant, and began a 50 year career which took him around the world. His postings included India, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, Malta, Corfu, the Crimea, Jamaica, and Canada. One of his greatest achievements came early in his career, in Cape Town around 1817, when he performed one of the earliest successful Caesarean sections in Western medicine. Wherever he went, he traveled with his manservant and his poodle named Psyche, and earned a reputation for his outspokenness and short temper. His lack of tact frequently made him enemies. At one time he took part in a pistol duel, and he was described by Florence Nightingale as “the most hardened creature I ever met.” By 1831 he had been promoted to Inspector General, only to be demoted again after getting in trouble with local politics. But he was also known for his exceptional bedside manner, and his compassion for overlooked people such as lepers, criminals, and the poor. He was passionate about improving the sanitation and quality of food wherever he traveled, and loudly critical of other doctors who didn’t do enough. He was also a vegetarian and a teetotaler. He retired to England in 1864 and died the following year, the same year that Elizabeth Garrett became first female doctor qualified in Britain. It wasn’t until after his death that Dr. Barry’s assigned gender was discovered.

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