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25th July 2018
Edinburgh World Heritage
The nineteenth century wasn’t a great time to become sick or injured – the study of medicine was less rigorous than it is today, and for that reason, we tend to remember fondly the names of those who helped improve our understanding: Florence Nightingale, Alexander Fleming, and Marie Curie, for example.
But there is another historical figure who made great strides in medicine, saving the lives of many and improving the conditions of patients all around the world: the British-born Victorian adventurer and pioneering surgeon Dr James Barry.
Barry graduated from the University of Edinburgh’s Medical School as a doctor at a young age and showed great promise in the areas of midwifery and dissection, even performing one of the first successful Caesarean sections in modern medicine. As a respected army doctor and the chief medical inspector for the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, Barry insisted, often to the annoyance of other military officers, on better conditions for soldiers and citizens who were admitted to Cape Town’s Somerset Hospital. Ensuring a clean water supply, proper diet and humane treatment were just some of the forward-thinking measures that Barry introduced, along with a polite and caring bedside manner.
Outside the ward, Barry was an aggressive and somewhat flamboyant character, quick to temper, or a sharp-witted taunt. After a scandal involving the governor of the Cape, Lord Charles Somerset, Barry left the colony and went on to make improvements in other far-flung places throughout the British empire, enjoying a long and successful medical career.
Settling back in London in 1864, Barry died shortly thereafter and left strict instructions to be buried “as is”, with no special preparation or dressing up of the body. Although these instructions were ignored by nurses, it soon became apparent why they were given.
James Barry was actually a woman. And according to one of the nurses, there were also signs that she had once given birth.
The story rocked British society at the time, and the army sealed all official records regarding the incident for 100 years.
It has taken a number of dedicated historians to uncover the truth about James Barry, and we now know that she was in fact born Margaret Ann Bulkley in Ireland. Her uncle (the real James Barry) and mother had devised the whole plan in order to get her enrolled in medical school, and thus lead a better life. Women were not allowed to become doctors, so Margaret went along with the deceit, in the hopes of joining her uncle’s friend Francisco de Miranda in Venezuela where she could revert to living as a woman. When he was captured, she found herself stuck, living out her life as a man in the cruel, male-dominated British army. She used her aggression and her charm to deflect suspicions, and in so doing rose to become a well-respected and high ranking officer.
Her contributions to the field of medicine become even more impressive knowing that she had kept this secret her whole life. While there is some debate about whether Barry may have been intersex, the matter of her gender is less important when considering the unusual life she lived, and her incredible achievements.
It is said that there are more statues of dogs in Edinburgh than there are of women. Is it time we memorialised Dr James Barry? Which other women would you like to see celebrated in Edinburgh?
(Main image by Oneworld Publications)
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