A Cork woman who lived her life as a male doctor saved thousands of lives

In this month’s ‘She’s Inspirational’ column, NICOLA DEPUIS looks at the medical genius of Dr James Barry - aka Margaret Bulkley
A Cork woman who lived her life as a male doctor saved thousands of lives

Herstory Dr. James Barry. Pic: Courtesy of RTE.

IF you haven’t heard of Cork-born Margaret Bulkley - or Dr James Barry - before now, you’re in for a treat.

It’s impossible for us to truly tell whether Margaret chose to live as a man in order to pursue goals kept from women at the time, such as the study of medicine, or whether she was transgendered, but for the telling of this article, I’ll refer to Margaret, from this point on, respectfully, as She.

Margaret Bulkley was born in 1799 to Cork city grocer Jeremiah Bulkley and his wife Mary-Ann, sister of James Barry, the Irish painter.

When Jeremiah was imprisoned for debt, Mary-Ann took her two daughters to London where the young Margaret was introduced to her uncle’s legendary friends, who included General Francisco Miranda, the Venezuelan revolutionary.

An advocate of female education, Miranda saw a promising future for the young Margaret, who showed an early interest in medicine. 

He gave the young girl the full use of his extensive and celebrated library, and promised her a job as a surgeon in Venezuela. However, as women were forbidden from studying medicine at the time, it became clear that another course of action was needed.

When James Barry died, he left provisions in his will for Margaret’s education and so, in 1809, the young Margaret Bulkley left all traces of her gender behind as she boarded a ship to Scotland with her mother. Under the name James Barry, she had been accepted into the University of Edinburgh.

Margaret’s mother fully supported her daughter’s decision to enter university disguised as a male, and may have believed it was the only way this family of women could survive financially. To maintain the facade, they were forced to cut all contact with family and friends, and upon boarding the ship to Scotland, both would leave life as they had known it behind.

Margaret qualified with a medical doctorate in 1812 but was disappointed to find that her loyal patron, Francisco Miranda, had been imprisoned following the failure of his revolution, and so she was now faced with the prospect of looking for work.

The British army was seeking surgeons at the time and Margaret enlisted. After working at St Thomas’s Hospital in London, and later in Plymouth, Margaret was posted to Cape Town, South Africa, where she made such an impression as a physician, surgeon and obstetrician that she was appointed Medical Inspector for the entire colony within a number of years.

While in Cape Town, Margaret oversaw every aspect of the medical system, from the inspection of drugs for sale to the inspection of hygiene levels in jails. She also criticised local doctors for their blatant discrimination against lepers and prisoners.

When it came to her patients, Margaret became a lifeline for women who had never before been treated by a doctor with such an innate understanding of women, and as she never accepted fees for her private practice, she was able to offer her expertise to the poorer women in Cape Town. In 1826, Margaret was called to the aid of a woman who was dying in childbirth and managed to save both mother and child, performing what is recorded as the second ever successful Cesarean section in the world.

A student of tropical diseases, Margaret introduced the smallpox vaccination to Cape Town in 1822, 20 years before its introduction in England. As a military doctor, she was also constantly reforming and upgrading the living conditions of the troops and their families.

A portrait of Dr James Barry.
A portrait of Dr James Barry.

While Margaret’s professional life was much-lauded, her personal life came under scrutiny when her relationship with the governor of the Cape colony, Lord Charles Somerset, caught the attention of the public and the pair were accused of having an ‘immoral relationship’. Today, it is believed Margaret became pregnant by Somerset. However, there are no known records indicating if the child was born alive.

Between 1828 and 1831, Margaret was posted in Mauritius, Trinidad, Tobago, Saint Helena and Malta, where she was promoted to the highest rank a doctor could reach in those days – Inspector General of British hospitals.

During the Crimean War, she worked tirelessly to save the lives of soldiers, treating 462 wounded men from the war in Corfu.

Dr Barry was then sent to Canada. A strict teetotaler herself, she began a huge campaign to clamp down on alcoholism amongst the soldiers. She saw this addiction as the single greatest contributor to accidental deaths, with many soldiers dying from hypothermia having fallen asleep in a drunken stupor.

Outside of her pioneering work in army medicine, Margaret became well known for her various quirks. She was a strict vegetarian and would drink only goats’ milk. To this end, she brought her own goat everywhere she went.

She defied anyone to comment on her feminine voice and features, and launched many a duel with those who dared.

Late in life, Margaret suffered from chronic bronchitis and in 1864 she was forced to retire against her wishes. She returned to live at 14, Margaret Street, Cavendish Square, London, where her constant companions became her man-servant, John, from Jamaica, a succession of dogs, all called Psyche, a cat and parrot.

On July 25, 1865, following a severe outbreak of dysentery in London, Dr James Barry died from the disease she had spent a large part of her life fighting.

The charwoman who took care of Margaret’s deceased body later revealed her discovery that ‘he’ was in fact a ‘she’ who showed obvious signs of having been through pregnancy.

When word of this began to circulate, the British army sealed away records of the surgeon’s life for a period of 100 years. However, historian Isobel Rae gained access to these records in the 1950s and slowly began piecing together the details of this extraordinary woman’s life; a woman who rose through the ranks to become one of the most senior medical officers in the British military and who, through her pioneering advances in medicine, was responsible for saving the lives of thousands.

Next month, in our She’s Inspirational column, Nicola Depuis looks at Joan Denise Moriarty. The interview will be published on May 25.

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