Dr. James Barry: the British Army Surgeon with a Secret Double Life

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Dr. James Barry: the British Army Surgeon with a Secret Double Life


Many people might not know it, but Margaret Bulky was an extraordinary woman. She was born to Jeremiah and Mary-Ann Bulky, the second child after her brother Dr. James Barry. 

What set her apart early on—and what would later set her apart in adulthood—was the fact that she did not let her being a woman stand in the way of her joining the military or pursuing medicine. 

History.com, the website of the history-based pay television network, explained how Margaret was able to achieve all of these things at a time that it was highly unlikely and unthinkable for women to join these fields. 

Even at 18, Margaret already had a pretty good handle of the society she was born in, although she would often remark numerous times that she would very much like to become a soldier herself prior to her medical dreams. But it wasn’t until their family moved to London that she was actually able to find a way to do both of these things. 

At the time, her brother’s friends General Francisco de Miranda and David Steuart Erskine found potential in young Margaret’s mind. She was incredibly intelligent and passionate about pursuing medicine, so when her brother died in 1806, de Miranda and Erskine helped her take up the job that Dr. James Barry had left behind, standing in his place and shedding her identity as Margaret Bulky. 


Photo by: Rachel Holmes via Wikimedia Commons


Wearing overcoats bigger than her at all times and 3-inch shoe inserts, the new “James Barry” changed his age to “match his young, boyish look,” the report read, but what boggled the minds of the students at the Edinburgh medical school was how Barry was of “short stature, high voice, slight build, and smooth skin,” which luckily only led them to believe he was just a young. 

There were incidents when his age would be questioned, and during this time, Erskine would arrive to save him. 

Remember when we said Barry would also come to join the army? He did, enlisting when he was “22” years old. Once again, the question of his age was brought up, although he ascended to the ranks so fast they barely noticed. Barry quickly became the Assistant Staff Surgeon of the British Army, a position that today would be equivalent to lieutenant. During his service in Cape Town, South Africa, Barry got along with Lord Charles Somerset, who some believe knew about Barry’s secret. 

When Barry “moved into a private apartment at his [Somerset’s] residence,” people started questioning the nature of their relationship. Fortunately, the investigation later exonerated the two.


Photo by: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons