When most give a thought to the early days of medicine, they probably usually picture male doctors with male assistants. Even at the turn of the 20th century we probably wouldn’t picture woman as doctors, but more likely taking up typical nurse positions. Now if we could just take a moment to accept how wrong we’ve all been.
The first woman to break major grounds in the medical profession was named James Barry. Though James was actually born as Margaret Ann Bulkley. She was from Cork, Ireland and was born at the end of the 18th century. Not coming from the best of circumstances and being born in a time where there were practically no women doctors, Margaret Ann had to fool her friends, coworkers and country to make her dreams in the medical field come true.
It was just as she hit her late teens that her and her brother’s friends cooked up a plan to help her get into a university. It was then that she adopted the name and appearance of James Barry. It was an identity she’d keep for the rest of her life and one that would take her places that no other woman of her time had been.
After getting her education at the University of Edinburgh and passing an examination at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, her career really took off. Barry was hired by the British Army to be a hospital assistant at the Royal Military Hospital in Plymouth. If was from there that she took work in Cape Town and became the Governor, Lieutenant General Lord Charles Somerset’s family physician. It was during this time that she helped set up a superior water system for Cape Town and performed one the first successful caesarean sections.
After ten years in Cape Town, James took her work to the likes of Jamaica, Saint Helena Island, Corfu and many other locations. She also served across the British Empire on a mission to improve sanitary conditions.
Against her wishes, after nearly half a century of breaking medical grounds, she finally retired in 1864. It wasn’t until her death of dysentery in 1865 that she was discovered during her autopsy to be a woman and to have at some point given birth to a child. In her time her life was viewed as a huge controversy, but today it is seen as an inspiration to us all.