Dr James Barry

Dr JaMes Barry, a curious medical man, was a regimental surgeon in the British army who earned the promotion to become Medical Inspector for the Cape Colony. He had a smooth face and high-pitched voice, though there was no doubt about his skill as a doctor.

In July 1826, he safely delivered a baby by Caesarean operation: the first time this operation was ever performed in South Africa (or anywhere in the English-speaking world). Quarrelsome and touchy, Barry went hunting, danced with the prettiest girls, and even challenged a fellow officer to a duel. Fortunately they both missed.

The Governor of the Cape at this time was Lord Charles Somerset who considered Barry “The greatest physician I have ever met, but absurd in everything else.” Dr Barry insisted on absolute cleanliness. He inspected the leper institution at the town, Hemel en Aarde, near Hermanus and annoyed the superintendent by insisting on better food and treatment. He visited the Cape Town jail and reported on the bad conditions and poor medical care.

This so angered the prison officials that they took Barry to court, where he refused to take the oath or answer any questions. As a result, he lost his position as Inspector.When the Crimean War broke out in 1853, Barry hurried off to the battlefront where he met (and was rude to) Florence Nightingale. The bad-tempered doctor was finally sent to Canada, where in his shrill voice he complained at the state of the hospitals, at the dull food served to the soldiers, and at the bumpy sleigh rides over icy roads. The cold proved too much for him. He caught bronchitis and influenza and retired to London.

Six years later he died, and the cleaning woman who prepared his body for burial announced that Dr James Barry had been a woman. In an age when women were not allowed to qualify as doctors, it seems he had lived out this great deception all his life.

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