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Dr. James Barry: His Life and Outstanding Work Essay (Biography)

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Updated: Jun 2nd, 2022

Born in Ireland in 1789, Dr. James Miranda Steuart Barry was a renowned military surgeon in the British Army. In her time, Victorian society prevented women from acquiring formal education and practicing medicine; thus, Barry adopted a male persona throughout her career, a strategy that enabled her to rise to the rank of Inspector General of the British military hospitals. Following her death in 1865, it was revealed that Barry had been a woman who had disguised herself as a man while serving as a medical practitioner.

Hence, investigating her life, including why she chose to be a surgeon in a biased Victorian society, the barriers she encountered during her career, and her accomplishments, can provide crucial insights into the barriers she faced and overcame. Barry’s contributions to the scientific community and the level of reward she obtained from her career bear examination in this paper. Overall, Barry’s life is a confirmation of Joyce Tang’s argument (2006) that the extent of achievement of a woman in science depends not only on her degree of determination and talent but also on structural prospects, organizational support, and strategic decision-making.

Barry’s Biography

Barry was a pseudonym for Margaret Ann Bulkley, born in 1789 in Cork, Ireland to Jeremiah Bulkley and Mary Ann Barry (Mayberry, 2015). She had two siblings, a brother named John and a sister whose name is not currently known. Barry’s father held a governmental position as a worker in the Weigh Houses Cork as well as managing a grocery. However, after experiencing financial difficulties, Bulkley’s father moved to Dublin, Ireland, leaving his wife and children in Cork. The difficult circumstances that faced the abandoned family prompted Bulkley and her mother to contact James Barry, a maternal relative living in London, England.

Barry, Bulkley’s uncle, invited them to his residence in London, where they lived for many years after leaving behind the devastating life in Cork (França, Ledon, Savas, & Nouri, 2014). Barry introduced Bulkley to two family friends, Francisco Miranda, a Venezuelan general, and Edward Fryer, both of whom later become her mentors in her pursuit of a medical career. Bulkley took her uncle’s name upon his death from unknown causes shortly after he had introduced his niece to Miranda and Fryer.

Barry’s medical education began when she visited Miranda’s home, which had hard-to-find medical books. Miranda, noting Barry’s interest in learning medical topics, granted her access to his home library. Barry later ended up joining the Edinburgh School of Medicine in Scotland in 1809 through the help of Miranda and Fryer (Mayberry, 2015).

The fact that universities in Britain did not admit women influenced Barry to disguise her gender, passing herself off as a man in order to acquire a formal education in a field that was dominated by men during the Victorian period.

Dressed as a male and pursuing medicine, Barry tried to disprove the myth that female physicians could not manage the nature of the profession since they were viewed as fragile, especially in critical situations. She successfully completed her studies at the University of Edinburgh in 1812. However, shortly after Barry acquired her degree in medicine, her mentor Miranda died (Jefferson, Bloor, & Maynard, 2015). Barry decided to maintain a male persona in order to practice medicine in the discriminatory English society.

Barry began her career in the British Army, first securing a job as a hospital assistant; her impressive performance led to a promotion to the position of assistant surgeon. Barry served in this position during the Battle of Waterloo and was then transferred to Cape Town, South Africa in 1815 (França et al., 2014). In 1826, she successfully delivered an infant by caesarian section, the first such recorded birth process in South Africa. Barry lacked experience in carrying out the caesarian technique; she had witnessed similar procedures only twice while in medical school, and her surgical approach to the delivery of the infant raised concerns among other surgeons because she omitted the step of suturing the uterus to ensure it was securely closed (Umoetok, Van Wyk, & Madiba, 2017).

Despite fears of maternal mortality from this unorthodox caesarian procedure, both the mother and the infant survived. Furthermore, while practicing medicine in Cape Town, Barry conducted studies on the treatment of syphilis as well as investigated the prevention of corrosion in water pipes.

The dawn of 1828 was marked by Barry’s decision to leave Cape Town for Malta to manage a cholera outbreak that had affected a prime British shipping port in the Mediterranean region. She also served on Corfu, a Greek island, where she rose to the post of Deputy Inspector General of the British Army. Barry’s position also allowed her to take an active part in promoting the health of soldiers during the Crimean War (1854–56; Mayberry, 2015). In 1857, she was deployed in Canada, where she focused on improving soldiers’ diets and living quarters. Unfortunately, unfavorable climatic conditions in Canada exposed her to influenza, which later developed into bronchitis.

In 1859, the dedicated Inspector General was relieved of her duties after she returned to England due to the deterioration of her respiratory health. Eventually, Barry developed dysentery. She was pronounced dead on July 25, 1865. Sophia Bishop, who attended Barry’s body, discovered that the renowned surgeon was actually a woman (França et al., 2014). British media houses published this surprising news, informing audiences that a woman had acquired a medical degree and had gone on to become an outstanding surgeon, serving as an officer in the British Army for over four decades while disguising herself as a man. However, the British Army refuted the facts that the press had presented and restricted access to all her records for almost a century (Jefferson et al., 2015).

Finally, in 1950, the British Army granted access to Isobel Rae, a historian, allowing her to see Barry’s records. Since that time, information about Barry has been available. In line with Tang’s (2006) views, she presents a clear example of determination fueling the pursuit of science and the practice of medicine in a society that discriminated against women.

Factors That Influenced Barry to Pursue Science (Medicine)

The difficult circumstances that Barry and her family in Cork, Ireland experienced, as mentioned, played a major part in influencing her choice to pursue science, specifically the field of medicine, before specializing as a surgeon. Barry was raised in a way that encouraged middle-class expectations; her father, Jeremiah, operated a shop on Merchant’s Quay where he focused on servicing ships (Jefferson et al., 2015).

He also had a government job in Cork, implying that the family was financially stable to a considerable degree. However, unforeseen circumstances, including the eruption of the 1798 rebellion and the Acts of Union led to the collapse of his business (Jefferson et al., 2015). The poverty arising from these circumstances is believed to have influenced Barry to pursue science, by which she intended to save her family from the devastation brought about by her father’s misfortunes.

The Victorian age restricted women from attaining formal education, especially in science-related fields such as medicine. Hence, Barry’s father preferred to borrow money to support the education of his son (Umoetok et al., 2017). However, the brother lacked motivation in his academic endeavors and wasted the financial resources of his father, which later resulted in the accumulation of debts.

In contrast, Barry was bright and determined to study, even though Victorian society looked down on women, a state of affairs that interfered with her dreams (Umoetok et al., 2017). According to França et al. (2014), the wastefulness of Barry’s brother that led to the incarceration of their father and the family’s eventual impoverishment is considered one factor that influenced Barry to pursue a path counter to the cultural expectations of Victorian society as the only way to escape poverty.

Barry’s removal to London with her mother also played a great part in developing her interest in science, especially medicine. As mentioned, her uncle introduced this bright girl to supportive family friends, Miranda and Fryer, who offered crucial mentorship that inspired her to study medicine. General Miranda, exiled from Venezuela to Britain, provided Barry the opportunity to acquire basic knowledge about medicine from various books in his home library (Birkle, 2014).

In addition, Fryer, a physician and thus an experienced professional in the field, was able to help Barry to understand various aspects of medicine. Furthermore, following the death of Barry’s uncle, Miranda and Fryer supported her enrollment at the University of Edinburgh to pursue an MD qualification. In particular, Miranda promised Barry that after she graduated from medical school, he would take her to Venezuela to practice as a surgeon (Heilmann, 2018). Hence, Barry’s mentors supported not only her medical study but also the possibility for her to specialize as a surgeon upon acquiring a degree.

Barry’s unwavering determination and intelligence provided the resilience to acquire higher education in medicine and practice as a surgeon in a male-dominated society (du Preez, & Dronfield, 2016; Tang, 2006). Even after her dream of working as a woman doctor in Venezuela was shattered following the death of Miranda, Barry remained determined to pursue her dream by wearing the face of a man in Britain. According to Tang (2006), she demonstrated a great deal of bravery, perseverance, dedication, and intelligence, allowing her to rise to a high position in the British Army. Throughout her career, she was able to serve her patients as a qualified and experienced surgeon, despite her gender.

Barriers That Stood in Barry’s Way

Victorian society’s discrimination against women presented the greatest barrier challenging Barry in her life and career. Despite her outstanding intelligence, Barry’s father denied her the chance to access formal education. Instead, he funded the education of her less intelligent and unmotivated brother (du Preez & Dronfield, 2016). This practice of disregarding the need for women to acquire formal education during the Victorian era in Britain created a situation of gender inequality, which undermined the concept of women’s empowerment.

Such an obstacle posed by a male-dominated society meant that Barry was forced to embrace unconventional techniques to receive formal academic training. As a result, accepting the necessity to disguise herself as a man to gain admittance to the University of Edinburgh illustrates the extent of gender inequality during her time.

The issue of poverty was also a concern for Barry in her efforts to acquire formal education from the medical school based in Edinburgh. However, this surgeon’s mentors offered the necessary monetary aid for her university education (Birkle, 2014). Thus, despite her humble background, Barry’s intelligence and determination presented opportunities that overcame challenges regarding tuition fees. Gender discrimination also threatened Barry’s professional career as a doctor.

Because the dream of working in Venezuela as a woman doctor disappeared, in order to follow her dream, Barry had to continue presenting herself as a man (Heilmann, 2018). Victorian society believed that women could not serve in the area of medicine, especially surgery (du Preez & Dronfield, 2016). To Barry, gender-based discrimination invoked by her society did not present intellectual barriers. Thus, she was determined to excel in an unbalanced workplace environment.

Barry’s Outstanding Work and Awards

Various remarkable works characterize Barry’s career as a medical practitioner. For example, she became the medical inspector in Cape Town only four years after graduating from the University of Edinburgh (Heilmann, 2018).

While in South Africa, Barry championed the adoption of hygienic measures while at the same time dedicating her time to assisting the poor, mentally ill, prisoners, and black people. She also performed the first-ever documented caesarian delivery in Africa whereby both the mother and newborn survived. According to Heilmann (2018), Barry’s work was outstanding to such an extent that her colleagues felt jealous, especially after the mortality rate fell by 90% in military hospitals situated in Cape Town under her leadership.

Barry also brought about public health reforms in the various areas where she was stationed. She was a forerunner in offering self-care tips to the public. In championing reforms in the health system, Barry advocated for proper diet and cleanliness in the kitchen to fight preventable diseases. In addition, she facilitated treatment for smallpox in South Africa, two decades before this measure was adopted in Britain. Even though Barry did not receive any awards for the outstanding work she accomplished, her legacy is marked by the fact that she was Britain’s first female doctor.

The Scientific Community’s Reception of Barry and Her Work

The international community recognized Barry as an outstanding reformer in the field of medicine. Global society acknowledged the role she played in revolutionizing medicine and social life. As mentioned, she is internationally known for being the first female doctor in the United Kingdom (Foster, 2017). Unfortunately, the world celebrated her great courage and achievements only after her death. International society did not believe that women could succeed in medicine and other scientific courses that had initially been reserved for men. In defiance of such societal beliefs, she completed a course in medicine and surgery and became a legend.

Her work was also well received globally due to the significant role she played in helping the international community to contain the spread of diseases, for example, a cholera outbreak in Malta, among other regions. Moreover, in 1826, South Africa, joining other nations around the globe, celebrated Barry for carrying out the first successful cesarean operation that left the newborn and the mother healthy (Holland, 2017). Previous medical procedures had failed due to excessive bleeding and infection in the absence of anesthesia, which made it difficult for doctors to carry out major successful operations (Holland, 2017). The lack of such treatments made it difficult for doctors to control pain during operations.

Consequently, the international community was pleased by the news that a surgeon, Barry, had successfully performed a cesarean operation. According to Foster (2017), the baby was named James Barry in honor of this courageous doctor. However, some surgeons believed that Barry’s not suturing the uterus could have resulted in an increased risk of infection to the mother (Holland, 2017).

The scientific community that embraced this view did not regard the successful operation as a major achievement because Barry had followed an already established medical procedure (Holland, 2017). As a result, this group failed to recognize her as a reformer in the health sector. Barry’s outstanding contribution in the scientific field earned her the recognition of the Duke of Wellington. Consequently, she was promoted to the position of medical superintendent for the British Army.

The Level of Reward Obtained from Her Career in Science

Barry found science a rewarding career. Despite living in disguise for many years, her consistent record of promotions testified to the fact that she was an outstanding medical professional. Barry’s choice of pursuing medicine and surgery required her to disguise her identity (Hume, 2014), a strategy that, according to Tang (2006), exhibited her courage and determination to do extremely well in the medical field. Upon enrolling in the military, Barry held a low-ranking position until she went to South Africa, receiving her first promotion after successfully treating Lord Charles’s daughter. She became a close friend to the family, leading to her appointment as a personal physician to this renowned politician. Later, in 1822, Barry rose to the rank of Colonial Medical Inspector, an outstanding position in the military department.

Promotions gave her opportunities to effect remarkable changes in her society. Her position as a medical inspector helped her to establish reforms, including sanitation and water systems. As mentioned, she advocated for improved conditions in the lives of those less fortunate in Victorian society. For example, she oversaw the construction of a sanctuary for lepers in Cape Town. In addition, she helped to improve the conditions in prisons to ensure that inmates were not subjected to hazardous environments.

According to du Preez and Dronfield (2016), Barry’s career in science was satisfying because she used her position as a successful doctor and a high-ranking military official to influence decisions that impacted the well-being of many people. Her objective was to improve lives. She advocated for healthy diets for low-ranking soldiers and other marginalized groups in society. Wherever she served as a medical inspector in the British Army, Barry ensured that she made conscious decisions that could transform the prevailing detrimental conditions.


Barry is considered Britain’s pioneering female physician. Impoverished conditions in Cork, Ireland, forced Barry and her family to relocate to London where she had the opportunity to pursue medicine at the University of Edinburgh. After receiving her MD, she worked for the British Army as an Inspector General, which required her to move to various stations including Cape Town, Malta, and Canada.

Barry’s outstanding work was marked by reforms in the health-care system. During the entire time she spent at medical school and in the British Army, Barry disguised herself as a man to overcome discrimination against women, and her gender was first publicly confirmed when she died in 1865. However, through perseverance, determination, and the capacity to make conscious decisions, Barry ended up being successful in her career.


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