Jeanne Baret Did It Like a Dude

Laura’s Team Pick:

If I got to eat dinner with any person alive today, I’d hands down pick Rachel Maddow. But if I got to eat dinner with two people alive today, I’d also pick Robert Krulwich. He’s the host of Radiolab and a blogger at NPR. His column Krulwich Wonders is a “sciency blog” that covers everything from pandas to vowels and is music to the ears of every nerdy bone in my body. This week, he blogged about Jeanne Baret, the first woman to circumnavigate the world. The thing is, though, that everyone thought she was Jean, a male assistant to the botanist on board. It’s a fascinating story of gender bending women, androgynous men, and–weirdly enough–Peter Piper (the one who picked a peck of pickled peppers). Read all about it!

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Laura is a tiny girl who wishes she were a superhero. She likes talking to her grandma on the phone and making things with her hands. Strengths include an impressive knowledge of Harry Potter, the ability to apply sociology to everything under the sun, and a knack for haggling for groceries in Spanish. Weaknesses: Chick-fil-a, her triceps, girls in glasses, and the subjunctive mood. Follow the vagabond adventures of Laura and her bike on twitter [@laurrrrita].

Laura has written 308 articles for us.


  1. this is amazing. i grew up playing next to (and sometimes in) giant bushes of the plant she discovered, the bougainvillea. so cool to learn this story behind it!

    • Your bouganvillea bushes must have had smaller thorns than the bourganvilleas in my yard as kid. That thing had the wickedest spikes I’ve ever seen on a bouganvillea and was the only reason I wore shoes in the yard.

  2. This is such an incredible story. I’m a big fan of Radiolab but have never checked out Krulwich’s blog. Thanks!

  3. What an amazing story! As a fellow biologist, while I’m really glad that we don’t have to go these lengths to travel on expeditions anymore, I’m also jealous of all the amazing nature she must have seen that’s probably in a much-diminished state now.

  4. I read an article about Jeanne Baret a week or two ago, such a great story and neat person to learn about (and because I get obsessed with explorers, one of my new favorite people).

  5. When I hear about these figures from the past, I always wonder if they’re what they’re popularly described as, women disguising themselves as men to gain access to careers and social position (which certainly happened), or if they’re actually trans men. I remember reading about a person like this in a 1977 fact book, a FAB person presenting as a man, becoming a famous cowboy, taking a wife, adopting some children and then the “secret was revealed” after death. They had what was supposed to be a funny title, a quote from one of this person’s sons “she’ll always be dad to me,” but to me really showed a real commitment to a male identity. We have no way of knowing for sure, but this trajectory struck me more as a trans narrative for some reason. I think it would be impossible to retroactively decide someone was trans, both because we can’t ask dead people how they feel and because trans-ness is a modern understanding, but it’s interesting to think about.

    • OK, so I looked around and I found a transcript of the fact book I was thinking of. It’s from pages 42-43 of “Uncle John’s Absolutely Absorbing Bathroom Reader” (volume 12).

      “She’ll Always Be Dad To Me!”

      What would you do if your gender prevented you from pursuing the career of your choice? Many women faced this problem in the past. For a rare few, the solution was, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” They literally lived their lives as men.

      DR. JAMES BARRY, British army surgeon and pioneer of sanitary reforms in medicine in the 19th century

      Background: Barry entered Edinburgh University’s medical school in 1808 when he was just 15 (only men were admitted to medical school then). He rose to become one of the most skilled doctors in England. As Carl Posey writes in Hoaxes and Deceptions , the “tiny, beardless doctor” was no shrinking violet:

      Far from keeping a low profile, the medic courted attention, picked quarrels, fought a duel, flirted outrageously with the ladies, and once horsewhipped a colonel in public. Adored by patients, but despised by colleagues, Barry was finally forced into early retirement in 1859.

      Surprise! Shortly after Barry died in 1865, at the age of 73, acquaintances discovered why, despite his having spent 51 years in the army, no one had ever seen him naked: he was a woman.

      Note: Apparently, not everyone had been fooled. “Many people seem to have known her secret all along,”Posey writes, “and simply — perhaps because of Barry’s powerful patron — declined to mention it.”

      CHARLIE PARKHURST, “one of the toughest stagecoach drivers of the Old West”

      Background: Parkhurst worked for the California Stage Company at the height of the Gold Rush in the 1850s. He was 5’7″ tall, had broad shoulders, gambled, and chewed tobacco. “Once,” Carl Sifakis writes in Hoaxes and Scams , “this legendary master of the whip raced a team across an unstable bridge, reaching the other side just before it collapsed. Another time, stopped by highwaymen, Charlie shot the leader and escaped with passengers and goods intact.”

      Parkhurst, who claimed to be an orphan, never grew any facial hair, something that friends attributed to a “fetish” for shaving every day. Unlike his rowdy friends, he also avoided prostitutes, and preferred to sleep apart from other men. Other than that, for all appearances he was one of the guys.

      Surprise! In the last 1860s, an illenss forced Parkhurst into retirement, and on December 31, 1879, he died alone in his cabin near Watsonville, California. A doctor called in to investigate the death found not only that he had died of cancer, but also that he was a woman who had given birth at some point in her life. Who was this mystery woman? Nobody knows — that was one secret she did mange to take to the grave.

      BILLY TIPTON, jazz musician and leader of the Tipton Trio

      Background: Tipton was a popular jazz musician in Washington from the 1930s to the late 1980s. He married three times and his last marriage, to Kitty Oakes, lasted 19 years. He had three children, all adopted, a fact he attributed to an “injury” that he claimed made “normal” sexual relations impossible. Early in his jazz career, his baby face and high-pitched voice caused some listeners to joke that he was too feminine to be a man. But that was about as close as anyone came to suspecting the truth.

      Surprise! After years of refusing to see a doctor despite his failing health, Tipton died in 1989 of a bleeding ulcer at his mobile home in Spokane, Washington. He was 74. The paramedics who responded to the call quickly discovered that Tipton was a female, something that apparently only Kitty Oakes had known.

      It turns out that at the age of 18, Tipton had borrowed her brother’s name and began dressing as a man so she could work as a jazz musician. In those days, most women in jazz were “girl singers,” whose careers were short and of limited range.

      Tipton’s children were shocked. “I’m just lost,” her son Jon Clark told reporters after learning his father was a woman. “The guy at the funeral home showed me a little yellow piece of paper where it was marked ‘female’ under sex. I said ‘What?’ and he said it was true. Even so, she’ll always be Dad to me.”

  6. I read this article a few days ago, it was so awesome. Stories like this make me want to be a super outspoken feminist.

  7. That’s pretty awesome. Tangentially related, my great-great-great (great-great?) uncle was Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail around the world alone! Author of Sailing Around the World Alone. He could maybe have tried a little harder on that part.

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