Panamerican Journal of Trauma, Critical Care & Emergency Surgery

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VOLUME 13 , ISSUE 1 ( January-April, 2024 ) > List of Articles

HISTORY

Breaking Barriers, Bending Gender: The Remarkable Tale of Dr James Barry

Mathew Daniel, Alexander Holland, Saptarshi Biswas

Keywords : Cesarean section, Historical article, James Barry, Margaret Ann Bulkley, Surgery

Citation Information : Daniel M, Holland A, Biswas S. Breaking Barriers, Bending Gender: The Remarkable Tale of Dr James Barry. Panam J Trauma Crit Care Emerg Surg 2024; 13 (1):10-11.

DOI: 10.5005/jp-journals-10030-1448

License: CC BY-NC 4.0

Published Online: 30-04-2024

Copyright Statement:  Copyright © 2024; The Author(s).


Abstract

Dr James Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley around 1789 in Cork, Ireland, at a time when women were barred from most formal education and were certainly not allowed to practice medicine. Barry had hoodwinked Edinburgh University, the Royal College of Surgeons, and the British Army to become the first female doctor in the United Kingdom. She had masqueraded as a man in a life-long deception of breathtaking proportions. A renowned military surgeon, she rose to become inspector general of hospitals, one of the highest army medical posts. She created strict new hygiene standards, an improved diet for patients, and new medicines for syphilis and gonorrhea. She worked diligently to improve the welfare of commoners and slaves wherever she encountered them and arranged for a better water system for Cape Town. However, her biggest accomplishments occurred while stationed in South Africa (1826), where she performed a cesarean section (C-section) recorded as the “first known case of a British surgeon performing the procedure with both the mother and child surviving.” It was remarkable at the time, as C-sections were still a rarity, performed to save the baby only when it looked like the mother wasn't going to make it. The child, a boy, was named after “Barry.” When Dr James Barry died in 1865, she became infamous. By all accounts, she had led a colorful life. Yet all these eccentricities were nothing compared to the revelations that emerged on Barry's death. For the brilliant Dr Barry was, in fact, a woman. The charwoman who washed the body discovered “he” was “a perfect female” and furthermore surmised from stretch marks on the abdomen—that she had once given birth. The doctor who signed Barry's death certificate said it was “none of my business” whether Barry was male or female, and perhaps he was right. Dr Barry's story is of a brilliant physician, a woman ahead of her time, yet one of a scandalous subterfuge somewhat unprecedented in modern history.


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