The Scandalous Life and Astonishing Secret of Queen Victoria's Most Eminent Military Doctor

By Rachel Holmes

Random House. 361 pp. $25.95 Victorian England had more than its share of odd ducks, but few can have been odder than James Barry. He was a physician of great distinction, prominent in what Rachel Holmes calls "a new medical elite whose application of modern science was revolutionizing medicine" throughout the 19th century, but he was also a flamboyant dandy who, Charles Dickens recorded in his diary, was "unique in appearance, and eccentric in manner." Dandyism emerged early in that century, just as Barry undertook his medical studies and apprenticeship in Edinburgh and London, and he took to it as, well, a duck to water:

"Dandyism was the style of the parvenu. It suited the modern professional who wanted to demonstrate his indifference to convention. His was a new urbanity in the republican spirit of a postaristocratic age. While what Balzac dubbed the new 'elegantology' challenged prerevolutionary hierarchies of social class and privilege, dandyism above all its offshoots played with conventions of gender."

The prose in that passage may emit more than a whiff of the contemporary university, obsessed as it is with class, gender and the like, but in Barry's case it speaks to what appears to be truth. More than two centuries before the term was coined, Barry was a certifiable gender-bender. For the approximately seven decades of his life -- the precise date of his birth is unclear -- James Barry lived betwixt and between. He was barely five feet tall and, in the words of a contemporary, "was completely devoid of all the outward signs of manly virility." As a military physician, he worked and resided among men, yet for all his flamboyance he was "strangely physically reticent among his fellow officers"; he had what he called "my peculiar habits," many of which involved his firm insistence that he be permitted to change his clothing and do his toilet in absolute privacy.

He was a man of many secrets: "These were not the ordinary secrets of petty irregularities and youthful indiscretions that most people carry with them. Barry's secrets were of a nature that placed him beyond the understanding of the society in which he moved. They were also the secrets of the impostor." Within days after his death, the maidservant who had prepared him for burial confronted his doctor with an astonishing allegation. "Amongst other things," he reported, "she said Dr. Barry was a female and that I was a pretty doctor not to know this and that she would not like to be attended by me." He also said: "I informed her that it was none of my business whether Dr. Barry was a male or a female, and that I thought he might be neither, viz., an imperfectly developed man."

The word spread through London and the military. The Manchester Guardian breathlessly reported that "it stands as an indisputable fact, that a woman was for 40 years an officer in the British service, and fought one duel and had sought many more, had pursued a legitimate medical education, and received a regular diploma, and had acquired almost a celebrity for skill as a surgical operator!" The gossips were in heaven, not merely because Barry had been dragged so rudely out of his closet, but because in Victorian England "the dissection room and anatomical theater was no place for a woman."

Immediately, speculation boiled down to two possible motives for this cross-dressing performance. The one "most commonly attributed to Barry's deception was that she had fallen in love with an army surgeon and cross-dressed in order to follow him throughout the pathways of his career." The other, far more plausible, "was that she was a young woman who cross-dressed in order to enter a male profession from which she was barred," indeed "not just one but two professions: medicine and the military." It is also possible, as Holmes argues, that he/she was born "a strangely sexed child" -- a hermaphrodite -- whose mother sought to protect her from the prying eyes of a society that surely would have rejected and ridiculed her.

None of this is certain, but on one matter there can be no doubt: James Barry was "one of the 19th century's most exceptional doctors, and one of its great unsung heroes." Holmes summarizes his/her remarkable accomplishments:

"Famed for opening up the vistas of modern medicine, Britain's most indefatigable colonial doctor specialized in surgery, tropical disease, obstetrics, leprosy, and venereal diseases. Barry campaigned for the humanitarian rights of the patient. A champion of the socially marginalized and economically dispossessed, Barry prioritized the treatment of women, prostitutes, slaves, the insane, lepers, and children. On three continents, Barry implemented new methods of hygiene, sanitation, quarantine, diet, and effective treatment of some of the most virulent diseases known to the age. Barry's medical reforms saved the lives of thousands of people."

In many ways, the most important influence on him was his maternal uncle and namesake, the artist James Barry, "a romantic painter, a progressive aristocrat, and a revolutionary" through whom the younger James "was cultivated into a radical tradition." If one assumes that he was, in fact, either a woman or a transsexual, then it obviously is tempting to conclude (as Holmes does) that this explains why "he was a scientist and humanitarian who advocated the rights of the people most downtrodden by the advance of nineteenth-century British imperialism and the social inequality and injustice it drew in its wake."

There may indeed be some truth to this, but the very language Holmes employs in that analysis should give the reader pause. Self-evidently, she is a 21st-century feminist, academic and litterateur who holds -- or so it certainly seems -- decidedly left-of-center political and social views. To all of this she is fully entitled, but there seems little doubt that it colors her interpretation of a life that began more than two centuries ago and was lived in an age far different from our own. Thus, while Barry was an outspoken opponent of slavery, there is not much evidence that he was also an opponent of imperialism per se. Such evidence as can be gleaned from Holmes's account suggests that it was the brutality and indifference to human suffering of the imperialists, not imperialism itself, that he disliked. Probably he believed, as did most Englishmen (and women) of the age, that his was the most civilized nation on Earth and that an Earth presided over by England would be a far better place than one left to its own inadequate devices.

Whatever the true explanation for his career and his convictions, both were indeed remarkable, all the more so for having been achieved over such daunting obstacles. His story is as arresting as it is peculiar and -- except for the occasional fit of political or feminist correctness -- Holmes tells it well. She is especially good on 19th-century medicine and the culture of the British army. However unintentionally, she tells us that it really isn't necessary to set up Barry as a feminist hero because his -- or her -- story is far larger than that.