Scanty Particulars: The Life of Dr. James Barry

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9780140290851: Scanty Particulars: The Life of Dr. James Barry

This is a biography of the enigmatic Dr James Miranda Barry, who performed the first recorded successful caesarean section. Posted by the army as staff surgeon, Barry spent much of his career traversing the globe and eventually reaching the higest rank of Inspector General of Hospitals. But throughout his career, Barry courted controversy - through his flamboyant dress, his dalliances with society women and his strange and enduringly intimate friendship with Lord Charles Somerset, Governor of South Africa. The mystery surrounding Barry climaxed after his death, when the servant who laid out his body made a most surprising revelation. "Scanty Particulars" is the personal tale of an intensely public person whose life unfolds amidst constant drama, a world of medical innovation and colonial adventure.

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Review:

James Miranda Barry, the subject of Rachel Holmes's biography Scanty Particulars, was one of the great, forgotten pioneers of medicine and surgery in the 19th-century British empire. Posted to a series of far-flung corners of colonialism--from the Cape Colony to St Helena, the Caribbean to Canada--Barry was a consistent and charismatic evangelist for a saner and more scientific treatment of the sick and wounded. Argumentative and opinionated, Barry also gained enemies and attracted controversy. During his time at the Cape he fought for decent treatment of lepers and performed what was one of the first successful Caesarean operations in Western medical history. He also became embroiled in political in-fighting and melodrama when his close relationship with the governor, Lord Charles Somerset, was turned into a sexual scandal. After his death in London in 1865, Barry caused even more uproar. The woman who laid him out for burial had a strange story to tell. Doubts were raised about Barry's gender. Was "he" in fact a "she"? At a time when the medical profession was exclusively male, had a woman, for decades, played a role that contemporaries thought was only suitable for a man?

Holmes's life of Barry is undeniably fascinating but she struggles throughout her book with two difficulties, one of which is suggested by her title. There are indeed "scanty particulars" available about Barry's life and many important questions about him/her will always remain unanswered. The other difficulty is related to the first. Does Barry have an importance beyond the startling fact that "he" may have been a "she"? It is a tribute to Holmes's skill and depth of research that the answer most readers will reach is "Yes". Holmes has rescued from near-oblivion someone who, whatever their gender, was a genuine medical pioneer and highlights a person whose life raises interesting questions about fixed categories of gender. --Nick Rennison

From the Back Cover:

'Then I shan't be exactly a human?' Peter asked.
'No.'
'Nor exactly a bird?'
'No.'
'What shall I be?'
'You will be a Betwixt-and-Between.'
Sir James Matthew Barrie

'The most hardened creature I ever met'
Florence Nightingale on James Barry

'Though his appearance was peculiar he was a most noble man'
Lord Raglan on James Barry

'We do not even in the least know the final cause of sexuality. The whole subject is hidden in darkness'
Charles Darwin

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