close window

Her-Story, Then: James Barry/Miranda Stuart

[music 00:01]

Kate Mulgrew: The good doctor wore three-inch lifts in his shoes, carried a parasol, and traveled 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. I am Kate Mulgrew, and this is Her Story. [music 00:17]

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 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 traveled 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 Cesarean 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 had ever known but absurd in everything else.

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.

[music 01:53]

Her Story is made possible by the National Science Foundation.

close window