Most historians could tell you about Britain s first woman doctor, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. With her determination and courage to challenge the medical profession she carved the way for many women in the medical field. But what many historians don t know is the facts and story behind whom was actually the truly first woman doctor of England.
Dr. Barry enjoyed a reputation for considerable skill in his profession, especially for firmness, decision, and in rapidity in difficult operations. The gentleman entered the army in 1813, passed through grades of assistant surgeon and surgeon in various regiments. His professional accomplishments promoted him to the staff at the Cape. In 1840, he was promoted to medical inspector and transferred to Malta. He proceeded from Malta to Corfu were he was quartered for many years He died there, and upon his death was discovered to be a woman.
When an autopsy revealed that Barry was a woman, the war department and the medical association was so embarrassed that they hid their findings and Dr. Barry was buried officially as a man. By order of the British War Office, not one London paper covered the news of Dr. Barry s death. It could have been a major scandal. Who could imagine that the army s most distinguished surgeons with a rank equal to major general had been a woman – and no one ever discovered her identity?
It seems that Dr. Barry got her name from a man she called Uncle , James Barry, R.A. He was an Irish painter. This is where his nephew s education in anatomy probably began. When she became his nephew is not known, but James Barry believing women should be the well-instructed companions and associates of men , did not care to educate the child regardless of sex.
After her uncle s death in 1806, the girl had the privilege of visiting Latin American patriot General Miranda and David Stuart Erskine, the 11th earl of Buchan, both who were known to have the best private libraries in London. With the help of Lord Buchan, James Barry had no trouble getting admitted into the Edinburgh Medical School at the age of fifteen. This was the same school Sophia Jex Blake tried so desperately to gain entrance to in 1869. If only she had been a man!
In 1813 Dr. Barry passed the Army Medical Board Exam. The question there is how she passed the physical exam as well. Once in the army, Dr. Barry survived a cholera epidemic and performed a Caesarian section-only the second of its kind where the mother and child both survived.
After being appointed colonial medical inspector in 1821, she was very upset about the inhumane treatment of the inmates at the Leper s Institute on Hobb s Island. She drew up a set of Rules of the General Treatment of Lepers. In these rules she stated:
Good order must be preserved, but no cruelty nor deprivation of food must be resorted to. The parties must be considered not as convicts but as unfortunates The School and Church should be encouraged as well as Industry as much as possible.
In 1845, the Yellow Fever got the best of her and she had to take a year s sick leave. After her recovery the army sent her to Malta, where she served for ten years. Dr. Barry became inspector general of hospitals in Canada in 1857. She accomplished a lot in the two years she was there. She got the soldiers eating right, improved the water and drainage systems and set up the first quarters especially for married soldiers and their wives. Dr. Barry was stricken with influenza and sent home to England. Against her will she was forced to retire at half-pay after the medical board declared her to be physically unfit for duty.
Dr. Barry died on July 25, 1865. She was 70 years old. Her secret would have been kept if her wishes had carried out. She wanted her corpse to be sewn in a sack and immediately buried. Instead a woman was called to prepare her body and discovered her true sex. The staff surgeon confirmed this but did not put it in his report.
Whoever was James Barry , she has the distinction of being first- THE FIRST WOMAN DOCTOR of the British Isles. Secondly, on who has carried out a long career in the British Army, displaying professional attributes of the highest order, serving her country in all climates with distinction and she preferred to do so by the only way available in her lifetime, by assuming the outward trappings of the male sex, all the more credit to her courage and pertinacity. A wonderful performance
One has to wonder how life would have been like had Dr. Barry been discovered. The course of women history could have changed drastically. Dr Barry proved that allowing women to be educated in the field of medicine was not a disadvantage, but in fact, a privilege indeed.