The Female Doctor That Had To Live Her Whole Life As A Man

Grace Higgins | February 19th, 2020

During the 1800s, certain professions were nearly impossible for a woman to break into, unfortunately, it was a time of great inequality between men and women. One of the professions was the medical domain, where being a doctor was primarily a male role. One bright Irishwoman set out to follow her dreams and in the process trick nearly the whole British Empire.

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Known as Dr. James Barry, she dreaded the life of being confined to a house and decided the way out was the simply transform herself into a man. Born as Margaret Bulkley in Cork in 1789, her early life was pretty terrible when her father lost his business due to anti-Catholic repression and they were dropped into poverty. Margaret and her mother fled to London and sought the help of one of their eccentric uncles James Barry, who had a reputation for being very eccentric, with even some saying madness.

It was here that Margaret met his intellectual friends such as General Francisco de Miranda, who was an exiled Venezuelan revolutionary. When James died, Margaret received a modest inheritance, and she decided that it was a sign that she should be doing something else. Following Miranda’s encouragement, she disguised herself as a man and started to study medicine at Edinburgh University. She was accepted and proposed, coming back home a qualified doctor. Initially, her idea was to simply receive the education, and then shed the disguise and go be a doctor in Venezuela with Miranda but on her return home, she found he had been betrayed and was now sitting in a Spanish prison.

So she kept her disguise and practiced as Dr. James Barry, for the next half-century. She fooled the Army, high society, the whole British Empire from Jamaica to Malta. Traveling from the Cape to the Crimea, she went everywhere as a surgeon and became a celebrated one. James Barry pioneered new techniques, such as carrying out the first successful cesarean delivery in 1826.

In 1865, Dr. James Barry died and her instructions of being buried in her clothes with no examination were ignored. When the truth came out, all of her research and pioneering medical studies were largely ignored for another 100 years before society realized that of course women could excel in the medical profession.

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