A Woman Ahead of Her Time

Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time
Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield
Oneworld 469pp £16.99

Upon the death in 1865 of Dr James Barry, the irascible Inspector General of Hospitals, army surgeon and medical reformer, an old friend opened his battered travelling trunk to discover a collage of ‘fashion plates clipped from ladies’ magazines – a parade of gowns, crinolines, bonnets, hats and coiffures’. This incongruously feminine decor sounds a poignant note in a new biography of Barry, which gives the most detailed account yet of the woman who, in her male guise, became Britain’s first female doctor. 

Extensively researched, du Preez and Dronfield’s cradle-to-grave narrative fills in many of the significant gaps of Barry’s life. Born Margaret Anne Bulkley in 1789 to a respectable couple who ran a grocery business in Cork before they fell into debt, the authors provide a sound argument that, aged 14, she was probably raped by an uncle and conceived a child. Other financial and personal misfortunes then forced Margaret and her daughter to seek support from a relative, the well-known London painter, James Barry. Through his connections, Margaret found her patrons, who included the aristocratic liberal, Lord Buchan, an ardent supporter of women’s education, and General Francisco Miranda, the Venezuelan liberator. Through them, Margaret gained a place at medical school in Edinburgh, following her transformation into an alter ego, James Miranda Barry, who qualified as a doctor in 1812. So began a remarkable career spanning nearly 50 years. 

In 1815 the diminutive Dr Barry rapidly established ‘himself’ as a regimental surgeon and ‘an absolute phenomenon’ in South Africa, where he was befriended by the governor Lord Charles Somerset. Dr Barry was credited with modernising medical practice – introducing vaccines, Caesarean sections and improving hygiene – but was no diplomat. Barry asserted authority over those whom he regarded as self-interested charlatans, racists or intellectual inferiors and would not countenance corruption. Little wonder then that, as Barry moved from posts in South Africa to Mauritius, St Helena, Jamaica and Malta, he fought duels and was the subject of several official investigations. In the end, death came in a dismal London rooming house, where Barry’s sense of stinging loneliness was distilled in a diary description of Lord Charles Somerset as ‘my more than father, my almost only friend’. 

This conventional biography provides a wealth of fascinating detail about contemporaneous medical practice and attitudes, but at the expense of style. There is much repetition of scene-making, such as gazing out from docks at sea or over ship’s decks, and the authors take significant liberties in giving us their subject’s internal thoughts while neglecting to mention other cross-dressing cases that would have contextualised Barry’s experience. However, their dogged research is deserving of praise as they remind readers what Britain’s first female medic sacrificed to gain entry into this once exclusively male preserve.  

Julie Wheelwright is the author of Amazons and Military Maids: Women Who Dressed as Men in Pursuit of Life, Liberty, and Happiness (Pandora Press, 1990). She currently runs the MA Creative Non-Fiction course at City University London.

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