Cover image for Scanty particulars : the scandalous life and astonishing secret of Queen Victoria's most eminent military doctor
Scanty particulars : the scandalous life and astonishing secret of Queen Victoria's most eminent military doctor
Holmes, Rachel Scott Russell.
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, [2002]

Physical Description:
xii, 361 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
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Item Holds
RD27.35.B368 H65 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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An explosive story of colonial life, nineteenth-century science, and the mysteries of sexuality, Rachel Holmes's Scanty Particulars transcends the genre of biography. Through prodigious research and vivid storytelling, Holmes brings to life one of the most enigmatic figures of his time. In the 1820s, Dr. James Barry burst into the English establishment from nowhere. He landed in Cape Town and became the leading military doctor in the South African colony, working tirelessly to improve the conditions of free and enslaved women, lepers, and the indigent. Barry's further travels included postings to the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and Canada. In his career, he collided with some of the leading figures of the age, and his exploits were regarded with fascination by Mark Twain and Charles Dickens. Barry was a flamboyant bon vivant: fashionably dressed, flirtatious, and always accompanied by a poodle. Wherever he went, he sparked gossip, made enemies, and inspired relentless curiosity about his identity--curiosity that erupted into international scandal upon Barry's death, when his maidservant discovered the truth about this brilliant but mysterious icon of the Victorian age.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

What a compelling story awaits the reader! Copious, creative research stands behind Holmes' investigation into and reconstruction of the life of Dr. James Barry, who, in the early and mid-1800s, rose to great prominence as inspector general of hospitals and one of the most senior medical officers in the British military. Holmes here refers to Barry as "one of the nineteenth century's most outstanding doctors," and in learning the details of his life, we can see why. He was an outstanding surgeon, his innovations saving countless lives; plus, he led a glamorous, ostentatious life, mixing with the high-placed and the well-born. Holmes presents Barry's life as she "uncovered it" --a term that is quite appropriate, given that Barry had an incredible secret to keep. This account, then, becomes a fascinating examination of Victorian notions of gender as the author takes readers into the complicated world of hermaphroditism, without resorting to sensationalism. A solid contribution to Victorian history. --Brad Hooper

Publisher's Weekly Review

This fascinating exploration of the life of James Barry, a British doctor who, as Holmes shows, was one of the leading and most controversial innovators of 19th-century medicine, might be seen as an academic version of the movie The Crying Game. Holmes offers an enticing portrayal of early 19th-century medicine as she traces the rise of the once-poor Barry, a dandy who quickly became a crusading physician in colonial medicine, performing one of the world's first cesarean sections, and a leading proponent of health care for women and the poor. She also traces his fall Barry was relieved of his position of medical inspector after a celebrated trial in which he and a friend, Lord Somerset, were charged with homosexuality and incest. Despite this demotion, he continued to practice medicine in several British colonies for several decades. But Barry's "scandalous life" is outdone by his "astonishing secret." Barry's sexuality was a matter of great speculation during his life and became even more so in both historical and fictional portrayals after his death. Without sensationalizing, Holmes makes a thorough reading of historic sources, exploring whether Barry was a man, woman or a hermaphrodite and how this affected his work. At times, her language is academic and tendentious: "Like justice, Barry held the rich and poor in equal balance in the scales of his treatment." But more often than not, Holmes (the Web site manager of makes her biography of this outsider as compelling as the life it describes. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

James Barry, an exceptional physician of the 19th century, was a child of the scientific enlightenment and radical democracy. Trained at the best medical centers, he joined the British Army and became a major reformer of colonial medicine and ultimately its most senior medical officer. A girl biologically, Barry took the guise of a male in early adolescence and passed it successfully for a lifetime in the military. In his career, Barry was under the protection of one of England's most powerful families and in his zeal for reform collided with some of its leading figures. Holmes, a past professor at the Universities of London and Sussex and now a freelance historian, recounts the medical career and accomplishments of Barry, alluding to but not disclosing the gender issue until the final part of the book, where she delves into an insightful discussion of the conflict of self and physiology. Apart from this, a singular contribution of this well-written book to the otherwise vast literature on Barry is the historical information it provides on the history of medicine and personalities of the period. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. General readers; lower-division undergraduates through professionals. G. Eknoyan Baylor College of Medicine



Chapter 1 Betwixt-and-Between "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," Solomon said, and certainly he was a wise old fellow, for that is exactly how it turned out. Sir James Matthew Barrie, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens in the frozen heart of winter, a slight figure veered along the pavements of Edinburgh Old Town. With hands thrust deep into the pockets of a man's greatcoat, the body of the young medical student was concealed completely. Only his head was visible. The night was cold and still. Streetlamps lit his way between the grand monumental portals and pillars of the University of Edinburgh. As if drunk, he lurched with an unsteady gait toward his lodgings in Lothian Street. Self-conscious about staggering on a public street, he tried to regain the more confident composure of his usual strut. It was the winter of 1810 and James Barry, medical and literary student of the University of Edinburgh, had just attended his first lecture in anatomical dissection with his tutor, the famously "horrid" Mr. Fyfe. His sickened body hastened through the streets away from Fyfe's dissection room as if pursued by death and her grotesque procession. Yet his mind raced back to the scene he had just left, drawn by an intoxicating concoction of horror and curiosity. He recalled the scene like a demonic dream. A room of instruments and shadows, the temperature of a meat locker, somewhere between an artist's studio and a butcher's shop. The air clammy with malodorous condensation. Mr. Fyfe's three greenhorn students huddled in a group, uncertain of the etiquette for approaching the dissecting table, on which a body was laid out beneath greasy sheeting. Fyfe ushered them forward, stationing each with a clear view-and smell-of the cadaver. This uncomfortably intimate proximity to a corpse not yet three days old and of uncertain origin was the privilege the students paid for in signing up with Fyfe as private pupils. A select audience of young gentlemen, with the best view in an exclusive house, were suddenly and horribly fearful of seeing what their money had paid for. The terrifying experience was optional. Practical dissection was not a compulsory part of the medical degree for which Barry had registered. While required to be proficient in written and spoken Latin, classics, and philosophy, he did not have to do applied dissection. He could have qualified by learning his anatomy from lavishly printed textbooks. But James Barry had a particular fascination with the study of anatomy, with the folds and secrets of the flesh. He breathed hard through his mouth, fighting back panic as Fyfe lifted the sheet, revealing a loose architecture of bones held together with a worn tarpaulin of skin, like an old, patched sail clinging respectfully to the mainmast in memory of prouder times. Age and the shrunken size of the body in death composed Barry's first impressions. He struggled to translate the clean and figuratively precise lines of his anatomical textbooks into the irregular landscape of the purplish swollen body laid out before him. These and his childhood imaginings, swathed in Catholicism, had left him vaguely expecting that a dissection corpse would be luminous and sepulchral, modest even. In reality, the raw material for the surgeon's knives and saws was gray, graceless, and lumpen. Heart thumping, temperature rising with the bile in his throat, in this claustrophobic space the only heat he could feel was his own. Yet in Fyfe's chilly, candlelit rooms, James Barry's cold sweat of dread turned to the heated flush of fascination. The lamplit faces of the students began to shine with curiosity, bravado, and fear as Fyfe cauterized the body. He spoke in a clear, neutral tone aimed at reassurance as he made his first incision, along the clavicum and sternum, in order to demonstrate the anatomy of the neck and throat. As he made another incision from the top of the sternum to the chin, Barry's startled attention was drawn to the face of the corpse. Stripped of the animation of everyday life, it was a face unsexed. The blade sank into the flesh, and blood seeped up against the knife. Fyfe drew up the tough fascia with his forceps and began to describe the anatomical map of muscle and glands within. Barry's fascination deepened as the body was opened and splayed out into a three-dimensional space under his gaze. Fyfe lifted skin and fascia. Inky blood welled over the slashed binding of heavy skin; the body disclosed its interior. The external body disappeared. It was confusing to Barry. Without the boundary of the skin to navigate by, the eye lost its bearings. A chaotic topography reigned within. Barry wondered how he would ever learn to distinguish the fibers, membranes, tendons, tissues, arteries, nerves, and vessels sketched by Fyfe's knife. The organs that make so much difference to life were gray and indistinguishable in death. The flint slish of his tutor's knife was hypnotic. Barry could not take his eyes from the complicated, messy, and stinking body stretched before him. The foul stench saturated the air. As Fyfe wiped fluids from his hand and reached for a saw, Barry became conscious of a curious new emotion-the absence of any appropriate feeling of horror. This, then, was the state of "necessary inhumanity" required to attain this knowledge. Keen to make the fullest use of the body, Fyfe offered a dissection of the lower torso and pelvis. He decided to leave the legs for another session, since the night was drawing on. Fyfe eviscerated the pelvis, revealing the shadowed cavity of the cervix and the muscular coat of the uterus, grayish in color. Superfluous membrane slipped back to reveal the subcutaneous folds of the groin. He pointed to the anomaly of some thick flesh-colored tubercles. Fyfe's knife made shapes out of the gray matter of the anonymous body like a painter picking out an invisible line with a fine sable brush. Barry was looking at the inverted mirror of a woman's body. A life anatomized. The scalpel cut a swath through the history of the corpse, revealing its physiological secrets to the students. Barry discovered things unknown to the woman during her recently ended life. Yet for all this revelation of the messy flesh, the body was stubborn in its silence. A female body devoid of inhibition in front of an uninvited group of closely observing male strangers. Mr. Fyfe concluded his demonstration by asking the students if they would like to take a little commemorative souvenir before he covered the leavings. John Jobson, Barry's friend, gamely chose an ear. Barry demurred. He already had everything he needed to take away from the experience. He was determined to become an anatomical explorer, adept at navigating the body through the secrets of surgery. The young student approached the lodgings where he stayed with his guardian, Mrs. Mary Anne Bulkley. He was relieved that the ordeal was over, yet scintillated and invigorated. He wanted to experience it again. He paused briefly, inhaling a final sharp intake of air to clear away the miasma. Then, turning his back to the street, he disappeared through the door of 6 Lothian Street, closing it behind him with a firmness that echoed into the night. Narrow and crowded, the tall old tenement houses of Edinburgh Old Town where Barry lodged were subdivided and sublet to writers, intellectuals, artists, and students, who lived and worked beside the cobbled streets thronging with the city's swiftly expanding urban populace. The city Tobias Smollett described as "a hotbed of genius" had been the home of the key thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, including Adam Smith and David Hume. Robert Burns first came to Edinburgh in 1786 in search of a printer who would produce another edition of his poems. He discovered William Smellie, who had produced the first Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1768. The unfortunately named Smellie was not related to William Smellie, M.D., the great surgeon-anatomist who had worked in London alongside Cheselden and the Hunters. Described by Roy Porter as "a great horse godmother of a he-midwife," this Smellie was regarded as the founding father of modern male obstetrical surgery. He had printed a famous obstetrical atlas in 1754: A Sett of Anatomical Tables, with Explanations, and an Abridgement of the Practice of Midwifery. It was a practical guide to midwifery that quickly became a standard textbook of its time, a bible of creation consulted by medical students, fellow practitioners, and artists. Lavishly printed, Smellie's obstetrical atlas was highly collectible, a coveted acquisition for the private libraries of noblemen and gentlemen. There is no doubt that Barry encountered this textbook in the private libraries of Lord Buchan and General Francisco de Miranda. The University of Edinburgh was at the zenith of its reputation between 1760 and 1820. Founded in 1726, the medical school in particular had immense prestige and an international reputation by the time Barry enrolled. It was a place where a person reticent about his true origins might reinvent himself. Some were the sons of squires, some of prosperous merchants. All were intent upon proving themselves to be gentlemen of learning. As documented by the university register, Barry's classmates included students from England, Scotland, Ireland, the United States, Canada, India, and the West Indies. Students from outside the city either took lodgings-preferably at the homes of professors-or found accommodation with their parents in a house. So there was nothing unusual about Mrs. Bulkley accompanying James Barry when he went from London up to Edinburgh. It may be significant that, unlike at Oxford and Cambridge, the Test Act-which stipulated that students had to be practicing members of the Church of England-did not apply to the University of Edinburgh. Mrs. Bulkley was an Irish Catholic, so the young Barry's religion could have been a factor that made Edinburgh a suitable choice. The medical degree for which James Barry enrolled was a three-year course comprising anatomy, surgery, chemistry, botany, materia medica, theory and practice of medicine, and lectures in clinical medicine at the Royal Infirmary. The Edinburgh teaching system was regarded as exemplary for offering a combination of practical and theoretical study. At the end of three years the students undertook an oral examination in Latin, conducted by a panel of professors, in which they were asked how they would treat two specimen cases, and to submit a thesis in Latin. Of the utmost importance to the ambitious young Barry was the fact that the Edinburgh medical school offered exceptional opportunities for those who wanted to develop their skills in the arts of anatomy and surgery combined with clinical practice. The flourishing state of the medical school was largely due to this combined clinical training. Barry duly signed up for all the regular compulsory courses. The medical school allowed its most prominent faculty members to teach at bedside, in the surgical amphitheatre, and in the clinical lecture room, an arrangement that conferred importance and prestige on the value of empirical observation and practical activities. It was not an age of donnish decorum. Gentility and gore combined not only in the dissection room and operating theater, but in the politicking that took place in institutional corridors. Many of these medics were flamboyant, argumentative men. The traditionalists pitched themselves against the intellectual renegades, and the students watched their squabbles with glee. All were regarded with suspicion by the general public. Excerpted from Scanty Particulars: The Scandalous Life and Astonishing Secret of Queen Victoria's Most Eminent Military Doctor by Rachel Holmes All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.