When Dr. James Barry met with a patient, they could breathe a sigh of relief. There were few professionals in the field with the medical knowledge and life-saving expertise of the doc. But while he knew his way around every disease, affliction, and amputation saw, the brash and bawdy physician was a mystery to everyone he diagnosed. He had a long-hidden background that no one on the planet knew — until he died. Then, decades of secrets finally started pouring out.
Even his rivals would agree: Dr. James Barry knew his stuff. They hated to admit it, mostly because Dr. Barry was a bit obnoxious to be around if you weren’t a patient relying on his treatment. But he completely revolutionized 19th-century medicine, and one procedure he developed truly stands out.
Before Dr. Barry changed the game, C-section births were only done after the mother, and possibly the child, had passed. He became the first surgeon to conduct the procedure with no deaths. Dr. James Barry was a master surgeon, and throughout his life, work remained at the forefront of his character.
As a member of British military, Dr. James Barry made a huge impacts on the lives of those who needed him, regardless of skin color or economic status. But he was… odd. Associates as far back as medical school took notice of some of his odd personality traits.
The soft-speaking Dr. Barry was very self-conscious about his appearance. Colleagues mentioned two things about the man that you couldn’t help but notice. He kept his face finely trimmed, never letting a beard show, and he was also terribly short. His rough temper and distant behavior also caused concern, as did his relationship with women, to say the least.
See, Dr. Barry was known to be a terrible brute. Even Florence Nightingale, the legendary nurse who made monumental impacts in patient care, thought so. The two didn’t care for one another, and certain behaviors of Dr. B’s really stood out to the mother of modern medicine.
Notably, Dr. Barry was especially difficult with women. He could be hostile towards the women in his life, but he was also an insatiable flirt despite never taking a wife or courting a colleague. In modern terms, Dr. James Barry was an utter dog — unless he was dealing with patients.
Fortunately, patients never dealt with Dr. Barry’s wrath. With them, he was kind and caring. He traveled across the world — going from the UK, to Africa, to Venezuela, and lastly Canada — as assigned by his military superiors. Dr. James Barry was changing the world around him. But the world was changing him, too.
Dr. Barry couldn’t adjust to the Canadian weather and climate, and wound up sick with bronchitis. After making positive changes to soldiers’ housing and nutrition, along with their families, the doctor was sent back to London to recuperate. Sadly, this would lead to his end.
While Dr. Barry wanted to return to the war efforts as a doctor, his superiors would not allow it. Over the next few years, old age took over, and the widespread disease of dysentery took Dr. James Barry’s life. His story, however, was just getting started.
See, at the end of his life, Dr. Barry had a simple request: when he died, there would be no examination. There would be no formal change into funeral attire. He wanted to be buried six-feet under right away without a second glance. His maid, however, had different plans.
When the maid undressed Dr. Barry, she saw a woman’s body laying on the table in front of her. The maid’s mind started reeling with a thousand possibilities. Was this the real Dr. Barry? It couldn’t be — he had been such a flirt, a womanizer. The medical community was stunned; people started digging into Dr. Barry’s past.
The story went like this: when “Dr. James Barry” was born in 1789, Ireland, they were biologically a baby girl named Margaret Bulkley. Their family struggled financially, as their father was in debt, which he was eventually imprisoned for. Then, the eldest boy, John Bulkely, disappeared. Margaret and their mother had to find a way through.
After some deliberation, the duo decided only option was to rely on Margaret’s Uncle, James Barry, who was a painter and professor at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Sadly, he refused to help. But life has a funny way of working out.
The real James Barry passed away from respiratory illness in 1806, leaving no will to anyone in particular. The stray Bulkely’s were given some of his estate, which helped them along for a bit, but wouldn’t forever. Still, Margaret had resources now, and with help from the late James Barry’s friends, the future-doctor started training.
Originally, Margaret was being trained as a tutor and a governess. Common jobs for women back then, but the future doctor would show a great talent for learning at the young age of 17. Two connections changed their path.
Under the tutelage of Dr. Edward Fryer, Margaret was introduced to the study of medicine. On the side, Margaret tutored the son of General Francisco Miranda, a revolutionary working to liberate his native home of Venezuela. Everyone took notice of Margaret’s intelligence and hoped to foster it.
General Miranda welcomed the young scholar into his vast library, where they learned everything they could. While Margaret studied, their mother’s support never wavered. However, she worried that there was one final factor that Margaret would never be able to overcome.
Since women weren’t allowed to be doctors at the time, the family concocted a plan. From then on, Margaret Bulkley would no longer exist. Instead, Margaret was known as James Barry. With his new identity, Barry entered medical school. Anyone who knew the truth was held to secrecy, but that didn’t make things any easier.
Margaret Bulkley was James Barry. In dress and attitude, he blended in. But there were some things that prevented James from fully passing in his new identity. Without the right hormones, the young James Barry never grew facial hair and had a voice with a higher register, which led to unexpected complications.
In spite of James’ excellent grades studying medicine, the university would not allow him to graduate because they suspected he was too young. It was thanks to another connection from uncle James that Dr. James Barry was allowed to graduate. Others pitched in to hide the truth, with another doctor certifying Dr. Barry was a man. Not everything went according to plan, however.
Because the new Dr. James Barry planned to follow his dear friend, General Miranda, to Venezuela, where women were free to practice medicine. The General was betrayed and imprisoned until he died in 1816, leaving Barry with few options. He chose to remain as a man, and more importantly, one incredible doctor.
To this day, people speculate why Dr. James Barry kept his background private. Some state the obvious: Because a woman wouldn’t be taken seriously in the medical field, the doctor had no choice. Others believe there was something deeper at play — the story of a trans man living in the wrong era.
After his death, Florence Nightingale wrote about one her most most interesting encounters with the doctor: “I never had such a blackguard rating in all my life — I who have had more than any woman — than from this Barry sitting on his horse, while I was crossing the Hospital Square with only my cap on in the sun.” She continued, painting an odd picture.
“He kept me standing in the midst of quite a crowd of soldiers, Commissariat, servants, camp followers, etc., etc., every one of whom behaved like a gentleman during the scolding I received while he behaved like a brute … After he was dead, I was told that (Barry) was a woman … I should say that (Barry) was the most hardened creature I ever met.”
Which is impressive, considering all the things the Nightingale, the “Founder of Modern Nursing,” had seen. See, back in the 1800s, nursing wasn’t a respectable career, let alone well-paying. Even doctors didn’t want help from female nurses. As Barry’s story proved, it wasn’t a job people desired. So given nursing’s poor reputation, Florence’s parents forbade their daughter from pursuing it.
Like Barry, Florence’s values didn’t align with gender expectations of the time. In her teen years, Florence had no desire to marry, in spite of her parent’s wishes and pressures from society. She knew she was meant to do more than be a housewife and followed a call to social service.
While Barry pursued a medical career as a doctor, Florence sought direction from the Church of England, in spite of some differing beliefs. She believed that mankind, and especially women, should do more to work in God’s name. This is what led her to her calling as a nurse.
As she matured, Florence was inspired by many different opinions of faith. American congressional minister Jacob Abbott really shaped her way of thinking, but she was also open to reading text from medieval mystics, liberal theologians, and German academics.
Though she was born in England, thanks to her family’s traveling throughout Europe, she became fluent in speaking Italian, French, and German. This multilingualism helped her in her training as a nurse in Germany and France. She had an understanding of ancient Latin and Greek to boot.
Florence Nightingale became famous for her impact in the Crimean War (1854-1856). Few know she was supported by War Secretary Sidney Herbert, who welcomed her medical knowledge and skills. They were close friends and colleagues who designed to change how medicine was practiced.
Soldiers in Crimea nicknamed Nightingale the “Lady with the Lamp”. This came from her habit of checking on every soldier at night while holding a lamp to see in the dark. Mind you, the rows went on for about four miles during this war.
She was beyond her years as a social servant. Going above and beyond, she helped wounded and sick soldiers write letters to their families and even took the tough role of informing loved ones about troops who lost their lives. As a nurse, she personally wanted to let the families know what happened to their loved ones.
Florence had made such an impact that even news reporters took notice. During the Crimean war, one article in the Times Newspaper called her a “ministering angel”.
In 1859, Florence wrote the revolutionary book “Notes on Nursing: What It Is And What It Is Not,” forever changing the medical profession. Nearly 200 years later, the knowledge from her book is still put to use. Her foresight was incredible.
Florence proved how intelligent she was by recording and analyzing data to perfection. Around the end of the Crimean War, she aimed to make hospitals better in this way too. Her gifts with data and numbers impressed Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1856.
Because of her data brilliance, she received a very special thank you gift from Queen Victoria herself: a beautiful brooch. The Queen held a great respect for Florence. In her royal manner, she proclaimed Florence “has set so bright an example to our sex.”
But Florence’s heroism took its toll. With many hours of work and dozens of people — including her family — to regularly look after, she felt like a prisoner to her own room. Still, she would not end her life’s mission.
Florence’s influence even reached all the way to the U.S. During the Civil War, both the Union and the Confederacy were concerned with the health of their soldiers and the sanitary conditions of their hospitals. Florence Nightingale provided life-saving knowledge to both sides.
Nightingale made sure to lay a foundation for the future too. In the late 1870s, American Linda Richards was training to become the first nurse in the US. After studying in Boston, she traveled to England and was mentored by Florence Nightingale herself.
Later on in life, Florence suffered a terrible illness. As sick as she was, she continued her work, doing her best to balance taking care of herself and saving other’s lives. Her admirers knew she couldn’t keep it up forever.
While so many heroes were only honored decades after passing on, Florence was awarded in 1907 at 87 years of age. It recognized her service for the British Military and impact in science. She was the first woman to receive this esteemed award.
After receiving the Order of Merit, Florence enjoyed her remaining days surrounded by her younger relatives and her long-time nurse friends. She was very ill, but could pass on happily. Two years after her passing, the Florence Nightingale Medal was created in her honor. The esteemed award is given to excellent nurses every two years.