Today female doctors are not a rarity. But that wasn’t always so. And that brings us to the fascinating case of Dr. James Barry, a military surgeon in the British Army who qualified for his medical degree in 1812 at the University of Edinburgh’s Medical School. Barry had postings in Cape Town, Malta, Corfu, the Crimea, Jamaica and in 1831, Canada. Here, as Inspector General of Hospitals, he fought for better food, sanitation and proper medical care for prisoners, lepers and soldiers.
By most accounts, Barry was a good surgeon, even performing the first caesarian section in Africa in which both mother and child survived. But he was not a pleasant chap and on several occasions was reprimanded for insubordination and discourteous behaviour. He even challenged a couple of people to a duel for commenting on his lack of professionalism and his voice. It is that voice that voice brings us to the most interesting part of this account. Barry’s was high-pitched, sounding more like a woman’s than a man’s voice. It seems for good reason, because James Barry was actually born as Margaret Ann Bulkley. This deep secret was kept until Barry died from dysentery in 1865. It was then that Sophia Bishop, a maid who had prepared the body for burial, made a startling discovery that she did not reveal until after the funeral. She then approached the physician who had attended to Barry, and stated that not only had the surgeon been a woman, but there were even signs that she had given birth. The doctor believed the maid thought she had found a great secret and wanted to be paid for keeping it.
Apparently she wasn’t paid because the story began to spread. The suggestion was that Barry had pretended to be a man in order to gain entry to medical school and then had to keep up the masquerade. Since there was no post-mortem, the only evidence for the bizarre farce was the maid’s word. Nevertheless, to prevent embarrassment, army officials locked away all records dealing with Barry’s career. And there the story rested until South African urologist Dr. Michael du Preez took an interest in the case and dug through the records that had been released in the 1950s. Du Preez found letters that revealed a conspiracy between Margaret's mother and some of her uncle's influential, liberal-minded friends to get her through medical school. The letters included ones written by Margaret as a teenager. Document analysis experts compared these with letters written by Barry the doctor, and found them to have been written by the same person.
The final evidence came in the form of a letter written by Barry to the family solicitor Daniel Reardon on "his" arrival in Edinburgh to study medicine in 1809. Although the letter was signed 'James Barry', Reardon had written on the outside 'Miss Bulkley, 14th December’. According to du Preez, "Reardon was a meticulous man," who on the outside of all the letters he received wrote the date and the name of the sender. It seems pretty conclusive that James Barry and Margaret Bulkley were one and the same. Given that today’s medical classes are more than half female, it seems hard to believe that Margaret Ann Bulkley had to pretend to be a man to forge a medical career.