‘The devil! It’s a woman!’ exclaimed a charwoman as she laid out the naked body of James Barry, MD, for burial. Seventy-six years earlier, Barry had been born Margaret Bulkley in a struggling Irish merchant family. After taking her uncle’s name and expending his estate on medical school, Margaret acted the part of a man for six decades.
The life she enjoyed as a man was breathtaking. She surmounted the early challenges of switching genders: she assumed a masculine voice and bearing, and falsified her age to account for her smooth skin and diminutive stature. James Barry became an army surgeon and worked tirelessly in a string of colonies, healing illness, improving sanitation, and educating civilians and military personnel in healthful living. It was a successful but unremarkable career: a breathtaking life for a woman of her time.