Margaret Bulkley: A Woman Ahead of His Time

The extraordinary Margaret Bulkley lived most of her life as a male surgeon who rose to the top of the British medical establishment, writes Patrick Kelleher, in this extract from part one of our special magazine series with the Friday edition of the Irish Independent. Part two is available this Friday (24/02/2017).

MARGARET BULKLEY may not be one of the most recognisable names in Irish history, and there is a good reason for her anonymity. She was primarily known by an alternative name: that of Dr James Barry, the celebrated surgeon who lived her life as a man so she could achieve her dream of studying medicine. Born in Cork towards the end of the 18th century, Margaret was the niece of the eccentric artist, James Barry. Her uncle was a celebrated artist and a professor of painting at London’s Royal Academy. Margaret’s early life was fraught with challenges. She was raped while just a teenager by an uncle, and went on to have a child from the incident. She later found herself poverty-stricken when her father, Jeremiah, lost his business and fortune.

However, it was these events that led Margaret to flee to London to live with her painter uncle, James Barry. They left Jeremiah back in Dublin in debtors’ prison, and forged a new life for themselves in Britain. When her uncle died, Margaret made a decision that would firmly cement her extraordinary role in history: she decided to live as a man, so she could become a surgeon. Margaret made her decision at a time when women were not allowed to study or practice medicine. She took her deceased uncle’s name, and went to the University of Edinburgh, where she began her new life as a young male medical student. Margaret — or as she was now known, Dr Barry — flourished at medical school. From then on, Margaret took on a complete male identity. He left university a fully-fledged doctor, and soon afterwards, he made the decision to join the British Army to serve as a surgeon.

Over the course of his life, Dr Barry became a revered surgeon who was unafraid to challenge medical procedure and try new techniques. He became the first doctor ever to complete a successful caesarean section in 1826. He also introduced new measures in hospitals across the world for health and hygiene, making the places he worked in as safe as possible. He would go on to keep his born gender a secret for the rest of his life, and lived as a man until he died. Dr James Barry was not just a remarkable figure for his extraordinary work in medicine; he was also vehemently against slavery. He also became known for aggressive outbursts, particularly in situations where people questioned his identity. On one occasion, an officer made a remark about his effeminate appearance. In response, Barry slashed the officer across the face with a riding crop. He also famously duelled another man, sustaining a thigh injury in the process.

Barry retired in 1864 and died the following year having changed the face of medical practice in Britain. He had left instructions to be buried in his clothes and not to be examined after his death, to protect his identity. However, these instructions were ignored. Sophia Bishop, the chairwoman who looked after his body, discovered that Barry had been born a woman. Sophia tried to blackmail the army with the information, however they paid little attention to her demands. Eventually, Sophia leaked the news to a Dublin newsletter. The news spread rapidly throughout the British Empire, and shortly, everybody knew that Dr James Barry had been born a woman and had been hiding his born gender for his entire life. Today, Dr Barry is remembered as one of Ireland’s most prestigious emigrants, who made unprecedented changes to medical practice, as well as challenging gender norms and expectations.