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Was Dr. James Barry a Woman?

In this day and age, we enjoy the perks of gender equality. Within the context of development and population, gender equality is crucial. It would allow both men and women to make decisions for themselves and their families to impact our world positively. But there was a time when women’s rights were simply unheard of. Case and point, the peculiar story of Margaret Bulkley. What did she have to do to reach her dreams?

Margaret Bulkley lived as a man in her adult life. She used the name of her uncle, the artist James Barry, in order to be a surgeon. She climbed the ranks of the army to Inspector General and performed the first successful C-Section in Africa. People only discovered she was a woman after she passed.

The Extraordinary Life of Dr. James Barry

Dr. James Miranda Steuart Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley in 1789 in County Cork, Ireland. Back then, women were not allowed to attend most formal education programs and even more so practice medicine. She was the second child of Jeremiah and Mary-Ann Bulkley. When she was a teenager, she was molested by her uncle and gave birth to a baby girl she named Juliana. The baby was raised by her mother.

Bulkley was very interested in pursuing a degree and wanted to do something way beyond what society allowed women to do. She was a woman ahead of her time.

Were I not a girl, I would be a solider!

Margaret Ann Bulkley

When their family experienced financial difficulties, Bulkley, who was in her late teens, moved to London with her mother. They stayed with her mother’s brother, James Barry, a Royal Academician and an artist. They met several of Barry’s friends, including the Venezuelan exile General Franciso de Miranda and the Earl of Buchan, Steuart Erskine. Young Bulkley made an impression on the two men as she was quite intelligent. They helped her plan how she could pursue an education in the medical field.

James Barry, the artist, passed away in 1806. He left his sister and niece a large sum to set them up for a long time. His name was also available for the taking. And in a matter of three years, Margaret Ann Bulkley no longer existed. She identified as James Barry, moved to Edinburgh, and enrolled in medical school. She altered her age to match her looks. People would still talk about how she looked too young to be in medical school. They assumed that she was a child. She maintained her identity as James Barry, and anytime she would experience discrimination because of how she was perceived, Lord Erskine would intervene.

She received her medical degree at 22 and enlisted in the army as an assistant surgeon. While she was often questioned for her age and doubted by many, she was eventually allowed to serve. (Source: History)

When Did They Find Out She Was A Woman?

Bulkley’s skills were unprecedented. She was a very skilled surgeon and was the first to perform a successful cesarean section where both the child and mother survived. She was also very dedicated to social reform and did not hesitate to speak out against the mismanagement of barracks, asylum, and prisons. Bulkley treated everyone, the rich and poor, the colonists and slaves.

Bulkley passed away on July 25, 1865, due to dysentery. It is said that on her deathbed, acquaintances were waiting for the secret to being revealed, claiming that they knew all along. Her last wish was to be buried in the clothes she died in and her body not to be washed. Unfortunately, her wishes were not followed. When the nurses undressed her body to prepare it for the funeral, they discovered two things: stretch marks from pregnancy and female anatomy. She was buried in Kensal Green cemetery in the northwest of London. This discovery was publicized after letters between the General Register Officer and Major D. R. McKinnon were leaked. (Source: History)

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