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Scanty Particulars

By Rachel Holmes

VIKING pounds 14.99

Fame isn't what it used to be. Admittedly, a flashy surname, influential friends, a suggestion of scandal and a look-at-me wardrobe also helped wannabes become celebrities 200 years ago. However, in the days when women were women and men wore corsets, would-be stars required something extra: talent. With talent, whether social or professional, one could be anything at all.

Dr James Barry was something, but what he was remains a mystery. In his lifetime he was highly successful: a medical reformer, a society figure and a flirt. On his death he was claimed to be something else entirely. That Barry may have been a woman is all most people know about him. Important as his medical achievements were, sexual secrets titillate: without them, this biography would not have been written. However, as Holmes emphasises in her fascinating account, Barry's life was an entertainingly strange one, irrespective of his sex.

Everyone knows a Dr Barry - someone whose rampant ambition and private, secret fears move them to incredible feats of self- invention and self- promotion. James Barry's extraordinary drive and tenacity showed themselves early on. Despite his obscure origins and odd appearance, he gained an apprenticeship with Astley Cooper, prince of surgeons, and the patronage of powerful mentors, including the revolutionary Francisco Miranda. The name of his famous relative, James Barry RA, also stood him in good stead.

As only the desperate can be, Dr Barry was a brilliant chameleon. He chose conspicuousness as the best way to hide his secrets, helped by the hilarious fashions of the time. He was naturally strange- looking but, in an era of red wigs, chest-padding, thigh boots and wasp-waists - and that was just for men - almost any effeminacy could be overlooked.

He was unusually brave. The challenges he faced in his first post, as an army doctor in Cape Town, would have finished off most men - let alone one whose true sex barred him from both medicine and the military. Barry successfully avoided exposure, while so impressing his superiors that he almost became the ailing Napoleon's doctor. However, the greatest impact he made on Cape Town was personal. He became famously intimate with the Governor, Lord Charles Somerset, to the point where they were accused of buggery. With characteristic single-mindedness, Barry did not reveal the truth: he knew that the storm would be temporary, but the loss of his right to practice would be permanent.

What is more, with the first successful Caesarean in British history, Barry redeemed himself. Again and again, in colonial postings around the globe and in the gaps between them (Barry went AWOL for 14 months to tend the dying Somerset), he scandalised or quarrelled with authorities and peers and then, with a dramatic act or the intervention of a supporter, somehow bounced back.

Barry did not understand the concept of lying low, even in his medical research. Holmes raises the intriguing question of whether his interest in female hernia - as hidden sexual organs are sometimes misdiagnosed - was sparked by self-diagnosis. …