What was the sex of General Barry?
George Watts (M 1959)
James Barry is one of the most unsung persons in medical history. It was he who created what is now regarded as the ethos of modern nursing. Until recently, Florence Nightingale, who plagiarised his principles was given credit for the ideas he developed.
Yet although she has been exposed, Barry still remains unsung. He qualified in Edinburgh aged 18 and later joined the Army – a common course for young graduates.
It was here that he developed his ideas of patient care whilst serving in the western tropical stations. What literature there is concentrates on his sex! Authors seemed to have been more interested in titillating their readers than showing any real understanding of the likely medical explanation of the facts and ignored his medical contributions.
The early part of Barry’s life is obscure. He was born at the end of the eighteenth century. At that time there were no midwives as we now know them. They were of the ‘useful women’ class but with no training. Charles Dickens created such an individual in Sarey Gamp. Thus it would not be surprising that any male child with agenesis of the external genitalia would probably be labelled as female! Indeed it would be almost inevitable. This would explain the absence of a boy fitting Barry’s early life. Only when puberty ensued would the error be discovered. It is at a little after this age that we first hear of a James Barry.
Barry became a medical student in Edinburgh. He was assiduous and qualified as M.D. whilst in his teens. To the modern eye this appears impossible but one has to recognise how little that we consider medicine existed at that time. It is only in the last half century that it ceased to be possible to qualify in medicine in this country at the age of twenty one.
Barry’s career was mercurial and he became inspector General of hospitals as well as acquiring professional fame as a surgeon. It was not until his death that the issue of his sex arose. This was based on the statement of the woman who laid out his body who declared that she found the signs that he had been pregnant.
Here one again has to consider what degree of knowledge such a woman would have possessed and what would have been the signs which she would have observed. Under the circumstances of laying out a dead body the only ones possible would have been abdominal striae. But it is usually overlooked that Barry had served in the West Indies where he had suffered from the illnesses which often killed the soldiers he served and had himself almost died.The presence of striae can be produced by ascites and this would easily explain their existence on the body.
Another reason further for the suggestion that Barry was not male is based on his having a coloured male manservant. To one serving in the tropics such a choice would be probable. It is only since WWII however that it has not been common for unmarried men to have a ‘Jeeves’ and this was never an implication of homosexuality either. In Barry’s time it was regarded as a gross offence – in Nelson’s navy it was a hanging offence! It has indeed often been regarded as a symbol of the decline of a society as occurred in Rome and Sparta.
The study of sexual agenesis is recent and the existence of chimera very recently recognised. No evidence has ever been produced to doubt Barry’s sex although it would seem quite logical to believe that he had some degree of agenesis – a condition which would have obviously caused him embarrassment and affect his behaviour. It is time to put aside all the gossip and to recognise one of the great innovators of modern medicine and nursing care.