As she prepared the body of one of the most respected doctors of the 19th century, a charwoman, made a discovery that would shock and embarrass the medical profession.

Dr James Barry was in, fact, a girl.

During a time when women were barred from attending medical school, Margaret Bulkley, aged 14, from Co Cork, took the name of her dead uncle, threw on a pair of slacks and enrolled in Edinburgh University, becoming the first woman to ever become a doctor in Britain.

bwThroughout her career, Barry served as an army surgeon in Waterloo, Crimea, India and South Africa, where she served as the personal physician to the Governor of the Cape, Lord Somerset. Some say that the Governor knew the Doctor was a woman, and its believed that they were lovers and had a child together.

Dr Barry  had a distinctive high-pitched voice and wore three-inch high inserts in his shoes to increase his height from 5 feet. He was known to be a bit fiesty and difficult and would hit the roof if accused of being effeminate. He is known to have fought duels to defend his honour, even shooting an opponent on one occasion and was described once by an army commander as ”the most hardened creature I ever met throughout the Army”.


Despite the fact that she lived her life as a man, Margaret Bulkley did her bit for women, and was the  first doctor to ever successfully carry out a Cesarean section, saving both the mother and the child.

Forced to retire in 1864, Barry did not receive the customary knighthood that a person of such reputation would have been granted. His record of arrests, demotion, insubordination and unannounced leave, had overshadowed his achievements.

Margaret Ann Bulkley lies buried in Kensal Green cemetery in London. Her gravestone is marked : Dr James Barry Inspector General of Hospitals, Died 26 July 1865, Aged 70 years.


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