[Review] 'Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time' by Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield

Only at his/her deathbed in 1865 was Dr James Barry unmasked as Margaret Ann Bulkley (born probably in 1789). The undertakers were in shock. ‘The genitals, the deflated breasts and the hairless face’ were unmistakably female, yet Dr Barry had served a long career as Inspector General of Hospitals in the British Army, achieving the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

Barry was respected for ‘his clarity of vision and firmness of hand and strength of will’. He/she performed one of the first Caesareans in history in which both mother and child survived.

Born into a desperately poor Irish family, Margaret Ann Bulkley was able to escape when, in 1806, she received a legacy from a distant relative, a painter called James Barry — the name she was to adopt[1]. Margaret dreamed of training as a surgeon, at the time a profession ‘firmly closed to women’. So, she disguised herself as a young man and traveled to Edinburgh. She enrolled at the prestigious Scottish university and attended courses in anatomy, chemistry, pharmacy, pathology, natural philosophy and Greek[2]. Barry proved a brilliant student and qualified as a Doctor in 1812 – the first woman to ever do so in Britain. Her dissertation 'Disputatio medica inauguralis de merocele, vel hernia crurali' was defended in flawless Latin after not even three years of study.
[Dr James Barry]

Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield happily paint a gruesome picture about conditions in hospitals in those early days of modern medicine. Patients could lie untended for days at a time, with operations carried out on the ward in sight of other patients.

In 1813, James Barry casu quo Margaret Ann Bulkley applied to become an Army surgeon and was to spend most of her career abroad, in South Africa, Jamaica, Malta, Corfu and Canada. She organised inoculations against smallpox, attempted to combat cholera epidemics and to fight alcoholism among the officers’ wives, who were bored to death in those faraway places.

When she died, people we astonished that a woman could have been as good as a man in a medical profession. However, that profession remained stubbornly chauvinist. The Royal College of Surgeons admitted its first woman fellow only in 1911.

To conclude: it's a great book about a interesting subject. Certainly worth your time.

[1] Du Preez: Dr James Barry: The early years revealed in South African Medical Journal - 2008. See here.
[1] Du Preez: Dr James Barry (1789–1865): the Edinburgh years in Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh - 2012. See here.

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