Poem Sale: Lessons of the Knife

I’ve sold a poem to Rose Lemberg’s collection Spelling the Hours, about forgotten figures of science and technology history. (Special thanks to India Valentin, Toby MacNutt and Rose Fox, who read the poem & helped me polish it before submission.) “Lessons of the Knife” is about James Barry, a Victorian English doctor who spent his life working on issues of public health in the British army; sanitation, women’s health issues, disease prevention, better access to medicine, improved living conditions for the poor, better understanding of sexually transmitted diseases, etc. He performed one of the earliest successful cesarean sections in western history and first documented an indigenous herbal cure for STDs in South Africa. He was notorious in his lifetime for an accusation of having sexual relations with his closest friend and patron Lord Charles Somerset (even their friends did not deny his relationship with Lord Somerset was inappropriately close — the pending court case was only dismissed because Lord Somerset was extremely influential and important) and for ruffling feathers wherever he went with his insistence on good medical practice over military protocol.

If Barry were only a radical pioneering Victorian doctor who traveled all over undertaking humanitarian works of medical reform, with a colorful public history, he’d be important enough to medical history. As someone who seems to have been bisexual, a flirt with ladies and a romantic intimate with gentlemen, he even seems like a queer figure in history who doesn’t come to any of the tragic ends that we have been told are inevitable in history (Barry, like many of his generation, died in his 70s from dysentery from London’s polluted waterways, not from anything tragic). But there’s one more thing about Barry that makes him truly unusual in the history of English medicine — he’s the first trans person we know of in English history to become a doctor and practice medicine. Barry was assigned female at birth, and lived his entire adult life without his birth identity becoming public. The discovery of his birth assignment upon his death led to confusion among the English world, sensational writing and magazines depicting him as a woman in man’s clothes, going into the army for love, following narrative tropes of the time. But for trans men who have struggled to prove their presence on the historical stage, Barry seems a clear example — he wrote of himself exclusively as a man, demanded to be treated as men of his time and received that treatment, and was successful at his medical and humanitarian work and even moderately famous for it.

Barry is a fascinating man and one I’ve intended to write about for some time. Two years ago I picked up research to write a speculative fiction piece about him — that story never materialized, but this poem, celebrating his life and his achievements, has instead. I’m very excited that it will be in Spelling The Hours alongside other figures of historical importance who have been too often overlooked. When I have more information about the release of Spelling the Hours, I’ll be updating here.

If you’d like to learn more about Barry’s life, skip wikipedia (editors are constantly fighting over what pronouns to use; for that matter, skip any material that refers to Barry as a woman, it relies on bad sources) and stick with Rachel Holmes’ solid biography (though, it could use some updating to mention anywhere the concept of trans identities), Scanty Particulars.

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