The Secret Life of Dr James Barry

Last updated: Jul 23, 2015

Cape Town has attracted many interesting characters over the years. One of them is Dr James Barry, a successful British military surgeon who worked hard to improve conditions for soldiers as well as the local people. Barry also performed the first successful Caesarean section in Africa. What makes the story of Dr James Barry unique is that despite living her life as a male, Barry was in fact a woman.

The early history of Barry's life is a bit hazy. When her family fell on hard times, Barry's mother came up with a plan to get Barry a proper education. This was at a time when women couldn't study and so to give her daughter the best chance in life enrolled her in Edinburgh University as a man, calling her James Barry.

James excelled at medical school and completed her degree in 1812, becoming the first female medical graduate in Britain. Thereafter she took up a job as a military surgeon, possibly served in the Battle of Waterloo. After that she served in India before moving to South Africa in 1815.

Dr Barry became the medical inspector of the Cape and was known for having quite a weird character. Her bedside manners were very good, but she also had a terrible temper. She was quite a formidable character with bright red hair, three inch soles on his shoes, cotton wool stuffed under her shirt, and she used to walk around town in dress uniform with a cocked hat, a large sword, a parasol, and a black poodle called Psyche.

Barry often got into disagreements and once had a pistol duel but nobody got hurt. She also had one funny interaction with a local clergyman who wrote to Barry about a tooth that he needed removing. Barry responded by sending a farrier. When the clergyman asked the farrier why he was at the house he said "Dr Barry told me there was a donkey who needed a tooth pulled". Barry would later come into conflict with Florence Nightingale who said of Barry that "he was the most hardened creature I ever met."

Despite his aggressive personality, Dr Barry was especially kind to those in need, and brought great reform in the care of lepers and prisoners. After receiving treatment from Dr Barry, one woman said, "No man could show such sympathy for one in pain."

Eventually on her death it was discovered that Barry was a woman. Barry was a very weird and interesting character with lots of dichotomies and quirks, but most important of all was the great reforms she brought for the poor and downtrodden.

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