When Dead White Men Were Actually Dead White Women, and other historical things that interest me

I’m growing even more fond of the podcast for 51 Percent, which every week includes a story about women’s contributions to science. I found this one very interesting, and the great advantage of spending all day typing when people talk is that I can transcribe it rather than make y’all go listen.

The good doctor wore three inch lifts in his shoes, carried a parasol and travelled the world with a milk goat. And he had a lousy temper. But James Barry earned the highest rank a doctor could achieve in the British Army.

No one ever claimed Dr. James Barry was pleasant. After graduating from medical school in Edinburgh in 1812, he joined the British Army, and was appointed Medical Inspector in South Africa. He began making trouble immediately. He criticized local officials for the inadequate water system. And he insisted it be upgraded. He served from India to the Caribbean, from the Africa to Canada, advocating for better sanitary conditions and nutrition for soldiers. He also urged more humane treatment of lepers, prisoners, and the insane.

Dr. Barry travelled in the company of a poodle named Psyche and a black manservant named John, who provided him with six towels each morning, to “accentuate” his uniform. More than once people accused him of having “homosexual” affairs. Barry performed one of the first successful Caesarean sections in the Empire. Women said he was a most considerate birth attendant. In the Crimea he was the only person cocky enough to reprimand Florence Nightingale. He was bombastic, opinionated and tactless. But he was entertaining, and maintained friends in high places. One supporter claimed Barry was the finest doctor he’d ever know, but absurd in everything else.

Dr. Barry died in England in 1864. The woman who prepared his body discovered that the good doctor was female. James Barry’s real name is thought to have been Miranda Stuart. She took on the male persona to gain entrance to medical school in 1809, when it was practically impossible for women to become physicians, let alone enter the military. For the next 56 years Miranda Stuart pretended to be a man… and was, in fact, a top rate physician.

I really find this story quite interesting on so many levels. I’ve seen a few pictures of the good doctor - here’s a good one with added stories about people who actually met him - and I’m torn as to whether everyone involved just “played along” with the “Oh, yes, Dr Barry is a man”, or if people were genuinely fooled. There’s an implication of both in various stories I read about Dr Barry, including in the idea that he would have gotten into the army if people had realised he was a woman in the first place. I somehow suspect not, at least in the time period, but I’m not a military historian and someone may come along and correct me on that.

A very important person in my life gave me a copy of the DVD “Tipping the Velvet”, which tells the story of a woman in Victorian England who started her career as a woman dressed as a man (and yet still obviously a woman), realised she was a lesbian, and dealt with all the social stigmas of it. (One scene that really stuck out was “It’s not like you had real sex - that requires a man.” I wish I could believe such things weren’t said anymore, but I’m not as naive as I used to be.) There’s a lot going on in the miniseries (and even more going on in the book, I’m sure), but one of the things that stuck out to me was that there were many many women shown as dressing “like a man” while not convincing anyone they were men, while simultaneously there were other women who were actually managing to bend their gender enough to “pass” as male when they wanted to.

Is this anyone’s particular area of study or interest that they can recommend some books or websites on the subject?

2 Responses to “When Dead White Men Were Actually Dead White Women, and other historical things that interest me”

  1. CrankyCrone Says:

    To my knowledge women were not allowed into the British Army until the 20th century (in a limited capacity in WW1). The British Army was (is?) The Original Boys Club.

    In the 18th & 19th centuries, the rank of Surgeon in the BA was an officer rank, and like other officer ranks, not open to ‘just anybody’. The system of officers was one of recommendation and coming from ‘a good family’. There should be some information on Dr Barry’s Army career at The National Archives in Kew (an online search yielded no results). It is doubtful that people knew or suspected that she was female at the time.

    I found James Barry MD listed in Hart’s Annual Army List 1860. This gives the following career dates: Hospital Assistant 5 July 1813, Assistant Surgeon 7 Dec 1815, Surgeon (no date given), Staff Surgeon 22 Nov 1827, Deputy Inspector General 16 May 1851, Inspector General 7 Dec 1858, Placed on Half Pay (retirement) 19 July 1859.

  2. Caro Says:

    Hi, some references which might interest you:
    Julie Wheelwright, Amazons and Military Maids, Pandora, 1989 (about a whole range of women who passed as men in various contexts including the military).
    Alison Oram has written some articles and has a book coming out soon on cross-dressing women.
    Patricial Duncker, James Miranda Barry, 2000: a novel based on the facts of this case, although it does take some liberties with them.