Miniature portrait of James Barry, painted between 1813 and 1816.

Miniature portrait of James Barry, painted between 1813 and 1816.

At first you might think I’m writing about a male doctor and therefore something not in keeping with the theme of Girl Museum. However, I am writing about a male doctor in disguise: Dr James Miranda Barry was in fact Margaret Ann Bulkley, from County Cork, Ireland. Margaret Ann Bulkley became the first ever woman to qualify as a doctor, albeit in the disguise of her male persona ‚ÄòDr James Miranda Barry‚Äô. Margaret Ann was born between 1789 to 1795 in Merchant‚Äôs Quay, Cork, Ireland to Jeremiah and Mary Anne Bulkley. Tragedy struck the Bulkley household in 1806 when her father died suddenly. Margaret would have been between the ages of ten to sixteen, dependent on what records are referred to her birth date.

This resulted in Margaret, her mother Mary Anne, and younger sister moving to London to live with her uncle James Barry, whom was a famous Irish artist. Unfortunately, James Barry had fallen on hard times which resulted in the lives of the Bulkley not improving after the death of their father and husband. However, influential friends of James Barry encouraged and paid for Margaret’s education and realised her early talent for the field of medicine. This was during the Regency Period of 1810 to 1821 and it was unthinkable for a woman to enter into tertiary education. The solution was to disguise Margaret as a man so that she could enter the medical program at the University of Edinburgh. From this period on Margaret became known as Dr James Miranda Barry, a misnomer she was known by for the rest of her life. James graduated at the top of her class and went onto study under the auspicious Sir Astley Cooper, where her doctoral and surgical skills led to rapid promotion as an assistant surgeon.

Soon after studying with Sir Cooper, James joined the British Army and was posted to the ‘Cape Colony’, today known as South Africa. James became the personal physician of the Governor of the Cape Colony, Lord Charles Somerset. Whilst living and working in the Cape Colony, James was instrumental in the promotion of cleanliness and reform in hospitals, patient’s private homes, mental asylums and leper colonies. James insistence on cleanliness led to clashes with medical authorities, but James stood her ground and insisted on proper medical cleanliness, thus eradicating contagious diseases such as typhoid.

Dr James Miranda Barry was also one of the first people to successfully deliver a baby by Caesarean section where both mother and baby survived, on 25th July 1826. However, after a few short years James had to leave the Cape Colony after suspicions in regards to the nature of her relationship with Lord Somerset. After leaving the Cape Colony, James was posted to Mauritius, Jamaica, and Canada and eventually retired to England after serving in the Crimean War. James secret was not discovered until after her death and was hushed up by the British Army. Her story was only re-discovered in the 20th century where she eventually gained the praise she so rightly deserved.

-Rachel Sayers
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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