June is Pride month, a time when we recognise some of the glorious human diversity in the world. We celebrate being able to be openly who we are, and specifically, Pride is about remembering the riots in Stonewall in 1969, when LGBTQ+ folks fought police brutality against our community. There are great resources out there (at history.com, from Harvard Gazette, and from stonewall.co.uk, which is a great website) that talk about the history and legacy of the Stonewall Riots.
I’m going to post content throughout June related to Pride.
Today I want to talk about Dr. James Barry.
Dr. Barry was a pioneer and a bit of a maverick. He spearheaded a number of reforms in medical care that led to reductions in infections, faster healing times, better medical standards, and generally better patient care. He was one of Canada’s early inspectors general of military hospitals. He routinely got into trouble because of his short temper and unwillingness to play by “the rules” – the rules which, at least in his opinion, in many cases caused harm. He was opinionated, outspoken, downright rude, and more often than not, Dr. Barry was not a fan of bureaucracy.
He was clever, receiving his medical degree at the age of 22 (or thereabouts, since there were questions about when he was actually born) and rising relatively quickly through the ranks of military service. He knew how to make powerful friends; friends whose rank and status saves Barry’s bacon more than once. There were rumours abound about just how close some of those friendships were, and at a time when homosexuality was illegal throughout the Commonwealth.
The work that Dr. James Barry did revolutionised military medicine, especially in the areas of sanitation and improved living conditions for the underprivileged. This latter was what often got him in trouble with his superiors. He was not one to back down, and would just go and do the things he wanted to do, regardless of who told him he couldn’t do it.
In addition to his obvious intellectual prowess, medical skill and ability, and drive to improve living and working conditions for soldiers and civilians alike, Dr. Barry lived for most of his life with a secret. The secret was not that he was homosexual. The secret was that Dr. James Barry was denied an education and was not permitted to enter university at all under his birth name: Margaret Anne Bulkley.