The woman who posed as a man to study medicine at Edinburgh University
James Barry was something of a reluctant feminist pioneer, helping to break through the glass ceiling for women in the 19th century. But his accomplishment of being the first female doctor in Britain would not to be known publicly for 100 years after his death.
Born Margaret Ann Bulkley in Cork, Ireland in 1789, Barry committed himself to living 56 years of his life as a man in order to avoid the life of social servitude that awaited most women of the era.
The 19th century was a man’s world, and women had very few rights. When they married, women forfeited the sliver of independence they had, and were expected to be subservient to their husbands, losing ownership of their earnings, property and assets – and even their own bodies.
As was the established norm at the time, most of the Bulkley’s family fortune was invested in the education of Margaret’s older brother, who led the family to bankruptcy when he fell for an upper class woman and accrued large debts.
To make matters worse, Margaret’s father was imprisoned when she was 14 years old, leaving the family with no income and no other option but to move to London to seek succour from her uncle, the celebrated artist James Barry.
When Barry died in 1806, he left his fortune to the family, giving Margaret a chance to better her social standing.
In the face of adversity, and with the encouragement of an acquaintance, Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda, Margaret Ann Bulkley decided to disguise herself as a man and use her uncle’s money to enroll at the men-only University of Edinburgh to study at its prestigious medical school in 1809.
Taking her uncle’s name, the 20 year old woman was subsumed entirely by a new persona – James Barry, a short, smooth-faced ladies’ man.
A new identity
Barry was a model student, diligently working to the top of his cohort of 45 doctors and taking an active interest in anatomy, botany, surgery and midwifery.
De Miranda, who had been impressed by the young Margaret’s verve and intelligence, helped concoct the plan, telling her she could discard her male alias once she had graduated and practise freely as a woman doctor in Venezuela.
However, de Miranda’s revolution in the South American colony against Spanish rule floundered in 1812, closing off the path that had been laid out for Margaret post-graduation.
Determined, Barry joined the British Army as a medic in 1813, after leaving medical school. Within two years, he rose through the ranks to become the chief medical inspector in Cape Colony (modern day South Africa).
It’s unknown how Barry managed to pass mandatory physical examinations undetected, but it is believed he was helped to slip through the net by Lord Buchan, a nobleman friend of Margaret’s late uncle.
Barry’s incredible secret was very nearly uncovered just before he graduated, when his tutors became suspicious of his age.
In later life, his flamboyant lifestyle and flirtations with women threw many off the scent. Women were attracted to the beardless Barry, who was often seen attached to “the finest and best-looking woman in the room.”
As well as his dog, Psyche, Barry was always seen with a trusted servant, Danzer.
For 50 years, Danzer laid out small towels every morning for Barry to help conceal his female form and to give him broader shoulders.
When he died in 1865, Barry had left strict instructions that he was to be buried in his original uniform and as soon as possible after his death.
No doubt this was to ensure his secret would go with him to the grave, but his maid, Sofia Bishop, discovered the truth when she laid out Barry’s body for his funeral.
Ashamed of the revelations that the renowned doctor and Inspector General was in fact a woman, the army immediately moved to cover up the story.
A closely guarded military secret for nearly a century, Barry’s accomplishment was not recognised by the history books.
Instead, the honour of being the University of Edinburgh’s first officially enrolled female medical student was falsely given to Sophia Jex-Blake, who was permitted to attend classes with her friend Edith Pechey in 1869, despite grave misgivings amongst the faculty.
This marked the first tentative steps towards full equality between the sexes at the Medical School, which, by this stage, would still not achieved for another two decades.
Barry’s impressive medical achievements, however, still stand today.
During a medical career which spanned 46 years, he ascended to the role of second most senior doctor in the army, and became the first British surgeon to perform a successful cesarean section.
He also enforced stricter hygiene standards for his patients, and popularised plant-based treatments for venereal diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea, conditions that were rife at the time.
Although Margaret Ann Bulkley would never have been permitted to even attempt these feats, she took a huge step forward for women all over the world and for gender equality when she became James Barry and followed her dreams.