Thursday, June 30, 2011

July 25, 1865 --- The General was a Lady

The retired Inspector-General of the Army Medical Department, Dr. James Miranda Barry dies at home in London. Notification of Barry's death is sent immediately to Army headquarters at the Horse Guards along with the incredible news that the doctor was a woman.

The news is quickly hushed up; a fellow medical officer declared: "There can be no doubt among those who knew him that his real physical condition was that of a male in whom sexual development had been arrested about the sixth month of fetal life." 70-years old at her death, Dr. Barry had concealed her gender upon enlistment in 1813, rising to Surgeon Major by 1827, and became Inspector-General in 1858, succeeding Florence Nightingale's nemesis, Sir John Hall. Yet, the sainted but quite prickly Miss Nightingale also had her run-ins with Gen. Barry. When later informed of the General's gender, Florence declared, "I should say she was the most hardened creature I ever met throughout the Army."

There had been rumors and speculation for years. Lord Albemarle, who met her while she was serving in Capetown, recalled her thusly: "In appearance a beardless lad with—reddish hair and high cheekbones. There was a certain effeminacy in his manner which he was always striving to overcome. His style of conversation was greatly superior to that one usually heard at a mess-table in those days."

Barry's rise through the medical corps was delayed several times due to repeated breaches of discipline; she fought at least one duel and was ordered home to London under arrest on more than one occasion. The truth remains a mystery; The Dictionary of National Biography suggests she was the granddaughter of a Scottish earl adding, "The motive of her singular conduct is stated to have been love for an army surgeon." Even the servant woman who had been with her for years was shocked to learn her master had been her mistress all along.

The General has become a latter-day heroine for feminists; "So far ahead of her time that, to achieve her purpose, she renounced her sex." In 2009, it was announced that a movie based on her life was to be made starring Natascha McElhone.

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