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Scanty Particulars: The Strange Life and Astonishing Secret of Victorian Adventurer and Pioneer Surgeon James Barry

BMJ 2002; 324 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.324.7349.1341 (Published 01 June 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:1341
  1. Irvine Loudon, medical historian
  1. Wantage

    Rachel Holmes

    Viking, £14.99, pp 352 Embedded Image

    ISBN 0 670 89099 5

    Rating: Embedded ImageEmbedded Image

    James Barry started his medical training in Edinburgh and undertook further study in London under Astley Cooper. He then joined the army as a surgeon and rose to be the most senior member of Her Majesty's Inspectors General of Hospitals.

    He spent almost all his working life abroad, where he “established a reputation as a vain, quarrelsome troublemaker.” He was also known as a highly skilled doctor, being one of the few of his time to perform a caesarean in which both mother and child survived. As a humanitarian reformer he fought for the humane treatment of “women, children, slaves, prostitutes, prisoners, the insane, and the poverty stricken,” and he was also a great conversationalist.

    The real fascination of Barry, however, was his appearance. Less than five feet tall, he had delicate features, dressed in the most extravagant uniform, and dyed his hair red. Wherever he went he was accompanied by a black servant nicknamed “Black John” and a series of pet dogs, all called “Psyche.” Barry would never allow anyone to see him undress and insisted that when he died “he should be buried in his bed sheets without further inspection.”

    When he died in 1865, at the age of about 70, there was no postmortem examination. Sophia Bishop, the woman employed to lay him out, was shocked to discover that James Barry was female and also had striae on her abdomen. The evidence of Sophia Bishop is not disputed. The author, however, discusses it in a rather muddled way by suggesting that Barry was possibly some kind of hermaphrodite. The most likely interpretation, although far from certain, is that Barry was a physically normal girl who decided to dress and behave as a man in order to study medicine. His mother had a daughter who died at the same time as the appearance of a “nephew,” James Barry. Through comparing the handwriting of the supposed dead daughter and that of James Barry it appears they were the same person. Thus James Barry was able to hide all information about his childhood, including his date of birth, and probably, but this is only my guess, with the mother's collusion.

    The book is written for a non-academic readership. The language is often sensationalist and journalese, such as describing a person's name as “his moniker.” Because this is a story of a highly successful deception, it is packed with uncertainties and ambiguities. But some of the uncertainties are the result of clumsy writing. The author's excursions into medical history are often wide of the mark, and her knowledge of anatomy and sexual abnormalities appears to be slight. Although the author claims an academic background, there are no references and only a very short bibliography. This means that the critical reader has no idea of the origin or reliability of the numerous quotations and assertions. Non-critical readers, however, can be assured that they will be entertained by this extraordinary biography.

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