James Dunk reviews 'Dr James Barry: A woman ahead of her time' by Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield

James Dunk reviews 'Dr James Barry: A woman ahead of her time' by Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield

Dr James Barry: A woman ahead of her time

by Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield

Oneworld Publications $35.99 hb, 492 pp, 9781780748313

‘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.

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James Dunk

James Dunk

James Dunk is a historian and writer living in Sydney. His doctoral thesis was a study of madness in colonial Australia.

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