Trans Surgeon: James Barry


Most people will know what a C-Section is these days, whether from Grey's Anatomy or otherwise. However, at the time of surgeon James Barry, C-Sections, known formally as Caesarean sections, were rare due to the low survival rates. However, James Barry, a surgeon in the 1800s, performed one of the first successful caesarean sections in Africa, where both the mother and child survived. James Barry was also known for many medical reforms. As well as his medical successes, James Barry was also known due to having been found, after his death, to have been assigned female at birth. However, from his early twenties, James Barry presented himself as male in all aspects of his life. 

The extraordinary thing surrounding James’ story, is the fact that, until death, everyone truly believed his identity. While he was fairly short in stature and ‘youthful’ in appearance, his major issue initially was people thinking he was too young to be attending university or sitting exams. However, James Barry was fortunate enough to have many open-minded people (for the 1800s, that is) supporting him. In his initial years, when he was attempting to study as a medical student at the University of Edinburgh, he was almost halted in his hopes of medicine by the aforementioned issues of height. However, due to his support system defending him, he was able to attend and complete his education, becoming certified by the Royal College of Surgeons England. 

From this point onwards James Barry was involved in military medicine, working in military hospitals, as well as going abroad to Africa. This is where he performed the aforementioned Caesarean Section. While he was in Cape Town, he managed to implement a number of reforms due to his appointment as Colonial Medical Inspector. 

One incredible thing to remember about Surgeon James Barry is his legacy - he was keenly aware of the importance of sanitation and diet, and ensure that most of the hospitals or areas he was stationed in received an improved standard of care. The first example of this is in Cape Town, where he immensely assisted the care of enslaved people, and ensured care for those who suffered from leprosy. His care for people reached incredible levels, as he refused to accept people suffering if it could be avoided. It is through this humanity he cared for people, in order to ensure their health and happiness. 

Notably, he also had a poodle named Psyche. Why you ask, is this notable? Well - it’s incredibly adorable to me. Therefore, it is notable and important to mention, to further this very informative biography of a queer medical man. 

Now, there are a few pedantic details to divulge. Of course, we must consider that his work in Africa directly assisted British Colonisation, which, to say the least, is not a stellar job to work. The fact that he is concerned with human health but still partook in British Colonisation is a particularly complex question. The answer is in no way straightforward, but I will say I appreciate the efforts he did go to, where he could. 

His death and post-mortem led to the eventual finding of his sex at birth, and from that point onwards, his army service records were kept hidden for over a hundred years, reflecting their thoughts of the time. Despite his astounding developments in health, sanitation, and patient care, his revealed transness led to a  harsh suppression of his life works. A hefty reflection of the impact of identity…it truly shows medical transphobia as a major issue, and the eventual revelation of his existence and implementations in the medical field can allow the queer community to celebrate their history in its complete glory.  

(Editors note: It is worth noting as well that Dr Barry’s assigned sex at birth was only discovered due to his post-mortem wishes not being respected. He requested to be buried in the clothes he died in, and not undressed or cleaned before burial, however this request was ignored and his biological sex discovered.)