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Ms James Barry, army doctor

Many professions were closed to women in the past and it is only in later years that women are gaining some form of parity with their male counterparts. Surprisingly medicine was one such profession where women were unwelcome.
Nurses were tolerated but becoming a doctor was out of the question. Italy was the exception but, throughout the rest of the world, women only gained the right to study to become doctors at the end of the 1800s A medical college for women opened in Pennsylvania in 1850, Harvard Medical School only admitted its first female students in 1945 and the first medical school to train women in the UK – the London School of Medicine for Women – was founded in 1874.
In the 1840s, Elizabeth Blackwell succeeded in gaining admission to the Geneva College of Medicine in New York. She had been refused everywhere. To show his open mindedness, the dean of the college decided to admit her if the students agreed unanimously. He was confident that at least one would object but the students thought it a great joke and all voted yes. Miss Blackwell had the last laugh when she obtained her degree in 1849 with the highest average in her class.
Even still, she might not have been the first. That honour might actually belong to an ‘Irishman’.
James Barry graduated from the Edinburgh Medical School in 1812 and joined the British Army. Reportedly he wore shoes with three-inch soles and had shoulder pads in his coats. He worked in Plymouth and was then posted to South Africa. He was also said to have had a temper, was pompous, fought a number of duels and was accused of having an affair with Lord Somerset, which, given his true identity, would not have been out of the ordinary.
He had a number of postings around the world eventually reaching the rank of Inspector General Surgeon of the army. In the crimes he crossed swords with Florence Nightingale who is supposed to have described him as “the most hardened creature I ever met throughout the army”.
Barry was born Margaret Bulkley in Cork in 1789. After her father was jailed for debt, she and her mother left for London where they enlisted the help of a number of family friends. One of them, Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco Miranda, was to arrange that she could practise in his country once she qualified.
The group educated her and prepared her for medical school. Margaret and her mother left London to enrol in Edinburgh and en route, she changed her identity to James Barry. After qualification problems arose, Margaret was arrested by the Spanish and could not go to Venezuela. If she wanted to be a doctor she had to remain in England and remain as James. Hence she joined the British Army.
She kept up her disguise and it only came to light at her death when she was being prepared for burial. Afraid of the scandal that it would cause, the army covered it up and her gravestone simply records the death of James Barry. Rumours and stories started and eventually the story became known.
Margaret Bulkley/James Barry, probably the first ever woman doctor in the United Kingdom, died on July 25, 1865 – 146 years ago this week.

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