Women in the Military; Dr James Barry
June 25, 2012
Q: When is a female Army officer not a female Army officer?
A: When she’s a male surgeon called James Barry.
I must admit, Dr James Barry is one of my favourite biographies. Although vague in parts and comprised of assumptions made by respected historians, the bare bones of this story invoke my inner rebel, the feminist that lurks within. Women couldn’t qualify as doctors in the late 18th and early 19th century. Women couldn’t join the military as officers. What do you do when the rules suppress your ambition? You find a way to circumvent them. Not only that, you circumvent them with style and panache. You do it bigger and better than anyone has before.
The first ever woman to qualify as a medical doctor in Britain did it disguised as a man. Dr James Barry was born in Cork as Margaret Ann Bulkley in 1789.
The fact that Margaret and James were the same person only came to light in 2008, when letters were found between Margaret and her parents and between James and the family solicitor. On the back of one of the letters from James, his solicitor had carefully written ‘Miss Bulkley’. Alison Reboul, a document analysis expert with the now defunct Forensic Science Service concluded during 2007 and 2008 investigations that the letters were written by the same person and the full evidence tying the two together was introduced by Dr Michael du Preez in the New Scientist Magazine in 2008.
Michael du Preez’ evidence was thus: In November of 1809 the Bulkley family’s financial records showed that Margaret and her mother sailed from Wapping in London to Leith in Scotland. Somewhere on that voyage they made the decision to change Margaret into James, and upon enrolling at the University of Edinburgh ‘James’ wrote to the family solicitor asking for all his letters to be addressed to his ‘aunt’ Mrs Bulkley, Margaret’s mother. The letter also referred to that same journey on the boat. Now recognised as a man, James Barry graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1812.
After six months at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, she joined the army as a surgeon in 1813. She quickly became famous within the service for her talent and flair for medicine. So good in fact, she went on to conduct the first successful caesarean section – where both mother and baby survived – in medical history in Cape Town in 1826.
She rose to become Colonial Medical Inspector in the Cape, and was a strict boss, earning herself a Court-Martial for her over enthusiastic efforts to improve conditions for female patients in St Helena. She was credited personally with improved hygiene and health of inmates in the prisons and leper colonies.
Her service was not unblemished and she came very close to being unceremoniously removed from the Army on more than one occasion. She padded out her coat with shoulder pads to increase her frame and wore 3inch heeled boots. Hot headed and feisty, James was known to challenge foes aggressively and on one occasion actually shot a man in a duel. Despite being small of stature she had an air of authority and exuded confidence, with her skills as a surgeon ensuring she was never discharged from service despite finding herself under arrest fairly regularly.
She also earned notoriety for her intimate relationship with the Lord Charles Somerset, which resulted in a libel action after the pair were accused of homosexuality. Of course with hindsight we know that if a relationship was had at all, it would have been a heterosexual one! Upon her death it was discovered that at some point she had been pregnant, and it is thought that she suffered a miscarriage whilst living in Mauritius. If a guess were to be made at the father of her baby all arrows point to Somerset.
Eventually she was promoted to Inspector-General Surgeon to the British Army and is famed for being the only medical officer of record with the audacity to discipline Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, whose methods Barry felt were unsanitary. As Inspector General, Barry was in charge of all the military hospitals in the UK.
Her efforts to disguise her gender proved so effective that it was only when she died of dysentery in 1865 that her secret was discovered. Sophia Bishop, the maid who laid out her body revealed that although she had spent 46 years masquerading as a man in the British Army, ‘James Barry’ was in fact a woman. A woman who had posed as a man to become the first female medical graduate in Britain, fooled the Army into employing her and then fooled everyone for nearly half a century.
James Barry is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in London, her gravestone bearing “his” name and rank as a mark of respect to the life she led.