This Military Surgeon Held a Secret For 50 Years That Was Only Revealed After His Death!

This Military Surgeon Held a Secret For 50 Years That Was Only Revealed After His Death!

Dr. James Barry was a remarkable figure in the British Army, known for his medical expertise and contributions. Barry, originally from Cork, Ireland, achieved many milestones, including performing the “first recorded caesarean section in the British Empire” where both mother and child survived. He was dedicated to improving conditions for wounded soldiers and native inhabitants alike. However, Barry carried a secret for over 50 years that was only revealed after his death.

Barry made an explicit request to his nurses and maids not to examine his body upon death. Nurses ignored the request and examined the body after his passing and they were stunned, to say the least. Dr. James Barry was, in fact, a woman who had disguised herself as a man for 50 years. They even found signs of female anatomy and stretch marks from pregnancy. Let’s dive into the details of this unbelievable story.

The Early Life of Margaret Ann Bulkley

Margaret Ann Bulkley, who later became Dr. James Barry, was born around 1789 in County Cork, Ireland. She was the second child of Jeremiah, a grocer, and Mary-Ann Bulkley. During this time, women faced significant societal limitations. Especially in terms of education and professional opportunities. Margaret’s early life had many challenges. As a teenager, she was raped by an uncle and gave birth to a baby girl, Juliana. Margaret’s mother Juliana stepped forward to raise her.

Margaret to James Barry

Margaret’s transformation into James Barry began when she moved to London with her mother. They sought help from Mary Ann’s brother, James Barry, a Royal Academician and painter. On their visit to London, they met influential friends, including General Francisco de Miranda and David Steuart Erskine, the Earl of Buchan. These friends recognized Margaret’s intelligence and potential right away. They encouraged her to pursue an education.

“Were I not a girl, I would be a soldier!”

Margaret at the age of 18. (‘James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time,’ authors Dr. Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield recounted)

The original James Barry died in 1806, leaving money for his sister and niece and his name up for grabs. In 1809, Margaret adopted the identity of James Barry. She wore an overcoat and 3-inch shoe inserts to appear taller and more masculine. However, there were suspicions due to her appearance. Most thought that he hadn’t reached puberty. But Barry never broke character.

With support from Lord Erskine, Barry enrolled in the University of Edinburgh Medical School.

Image source: Source Vintage Antiques / War History Online

Starting Medical School | Disguising as a Boy!

Barry’s journey through medical school was challenging. Rumors constantly flew around about his age and identity with his youthful looks, high voice, and small stature. However, Barry’s determination saw him through. He graduated with a medical degree at the age of 22.

Barry then enlisted in the British Army as an assistant surgeon, where his age was again questioned but eventually accepted.

Image source: / BBC

First Successful C-section in the British Empire!

Barry began his military career in 1813, quickly rising through the ranks. His first significant posting was in Cape Town, South Africa, where he served for ten years. Barry’s medical skills were exceptional. He performed the first successful caesarean section in the British Empire where both the mother and child survived. Barry also dedicated himself to improving sanitation and healthcare, advocating for better conditions in barracks, prisons, and asylums.

Barry’s career saw him move from Africa to Mauritius, where he faced a court-martial for conduct unbecoming of an officer. However, he was found not guilty. Barry continued to climb the ranks, eventually becoming Inspector General in charge of military hospitals in 1857. He fought for better food, and medical care for prisoners, lepers, soldiers, and their families.

The 50-year-old Secret Revealed!

Dr. James Barry’s final years were marked by continued dedication to medical reforms. He died from dysentery on July 25, 1865. On his deathbed, Barry requested everyone including his nurses and maids not examine his body. But this wish was ignored. When the nurse prepared his body for burial, she discovered Barry’s true identity. Barry was a woman with stretch marks and signs of having given birth.

The public and military were shocked by this revelation. The British Army sealed Barry’s service records for 100 years to suppress the story. Historian Isobel Rae later accessed these records in the 1950s, confirming Barry’s true identity.

Image source: The National Archives / The Times
Image source: Wikimedia Commons / Flickr / Walking The dead


Dr. James Barry’s life was a remarkable blend of courage, skill, and determination. Disguised as a man, Barry achieved great heights in medicine and military service, all while keeping a profound secret. His contributions to healthcare and social reform remain significant, highlighting the extraordinary lengths one person went to in order to pursue a passion and make a difference.

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