Inspiration for a Book


It has been stated to me that Inspector-General Dr James Barry, who died at 14 Margaret Street on 25 July 1865, was after his death found to be female.

This was included in a letter sent by the British General Registrar to the doctor who attended Dr. James Barry at the time of death, July 25, 1865.

I learned about Dr. Barry while researching Canadian doctors for a non-fiction middle grade children’s book.  Unfortunately, that manuscript still remains hopefully on my laptop entitled ‘doctors’ . However, feisty, fascinating Dr. James Barry intrigued me and this story of disguise and subterfuge inspired aspects of my newest release, A Debutante in Disguise.

Barry came to Canada quite late in life as Inspector General of Hospitals and remained in that post until illness led to retirement. Dr. Barry was mercurial in temperament, tactless and quite brilliant. Indeed, Barry succeeded in performing the first Caesarean Section in African where both mother and child survived – no mean feat in those days. Barry also espoused radical ideas like the concept that adequate sanitation and nutrition may improve health.

However, the most fascinating aspect of Barry’s story occurs after death when it was reported that Dr. Barry, who had lived his entire life as a man was, in fact, a woman.

Most now believe that Barry was either a woman or possibly inter sex.  This remains up for debate and conjecture but it is generally agreed that Barry was Mary Anne Bulkley’s child. Mrs. Bulkley had one son (named John) and two daughters. Her older daughter, Margaret Bulkley, evaporated from history and, four years later, Barry emerged from the University of Edinburgh’s Medical School. Following graduation, Barry became a medical surgeon and was posted throughout the British Empire and eventually, Canada. I have not done sufficient research to form an opinion as to whether Barry was female or intersex. The burial was prompt and that may always remain a mystery. (Although – interesting factoid- if female, Barry would be Canada’s first female doctor).

 However, I am convinced that Barry had a secret and lived a life of pretense in order to pursue a medical career.

This inspired me to create the protagonist in A Debutante in Disguise, Letty. She is a brilliant woman with a scientific mind and drive to be a doctor in a time when society did not believe that women had minds and certainly could not pursue ‘doctoring’.

Even when not in disguise, Letty is somewhat of an oddity. She lacks an interest in the occupations which most society women enjoyed and often felt different from others. It seems too often we adopt the sheep mentality. We like those who are the same and are apprehensive of those who seem different. I loved creating this character and loved that she was shaped, in part, by the medical pioneer with a Canadian twist.

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