Dr James Barry

Biography

Feb 24
Dr James Barry

British Surgeon & Pioneer in Sanitary Reforms

When exactly James Barry was born depends upon the source. Not much is known of his childhood; at least not much was known during his lifetime. After he died, his youth took on a renewed interest. However, we do know that in 1809 (at the age of 15 – 25) he entered the Edinburgh University’s Medical School where he majored in “literature and medicine.”

In July of 1813, he took the examination for the Royal College of Surgeons of England and passed. Within a week he was commissioned as a Hospital Assistant in the British Army.


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Barry was small in stature. In his career, he was larger than life. His colleagues hated him and his patients loved him. Florence Nightingale, after Barry’s death would write: “I should say that he was the most hardened creature I ever met.”

He was always insubordinate and rude, and though often punished, his sentences were quite lenient. He fought constantly with his colleagues, mainly over the conditions of patients. You see, everywhere Barry went, whether it was a hospital, a prison, or a leper colony, if he found the conditions deplorable he exploded. He refused to take guff from anyone who told him that that was “the way things are.” Barry became quite famous in his care for his patients, cleaning up and sanitizing their space.

His military career brought him around the world, from Canada to Cape Town to the Battle of Waterloo. In fact, it was at Cape Town where Barry made surgical history performing the first known successful Caesarean sections. Everywhere Barry went he made enemies. He constantly criticized the locals in their handling of medical procedures. By the time he reached the rank of Inspector General, he’d made enemies on nearly every continent under British rule.

Because of his focus on his patients, as well as the troops and their families, cleaning up their quarters, making sure they ate properly and the food was untainted, he is known today as a pioneer in sanitary reform, though back then he was more famous for his temper.

Why would Florence Nightingale write so harshly about him? He dressed her down in public, giving her a tongue-lashing that must have stung for days, or even weeks.

From the book, Hoaxes and Deceptions, we get the most famous quotation concerning Dr Barry (found in numerous places on the web):

Far from keeping a low profile, the medic courted attention, picked quarrels, fought a duel, flirted outrageously with the ladies, and once horsewhipped a colonel in public. Adored by patients, but despised by colleagues, Barry was finally forced into early retirement in 1859.

As Paul Harvey would say, “And now for the rest of the story . . . .”

Why did his death bring on such a renewed interest in Barry’s early life? Why would a book called, Hoaxes and Deceptions contain a piece about him?

During his life, nobody ever saw the doctor naked. It wasn’t till his death that they realized why.

Dr James Barry had been born Margaret Ann Bulkley. To enter the field of medicine, Barry had to live his life as a man.

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