College of Medicine & Veterinary Medicine

James Barry (1795 - 1865)

James Barry was a pioneering British Army surgeon and, in all probability, the daughter of a grocer from Cork.

Dr James Barry

Speculation surrounding Edinburgh Medical School alumnus, Dr James Barry, began in 1865 when his body was laid out for burial. Sophia Bishop, the women charged with the task, insisted that she had attended to the corpse of a woman.

The information was leaked to a Dublin newspaper and so began the mystery of potentially Edinburgh’s first female graduate. In the 1950s, historian Isobel Rae gained access to army records and concluded Dr Barry was a niece of James Barry, the celebrated Irish artist and professor of painting at London's Royal Academy.

Then in 2008, a South African doctor named Michael Du Preez discovered letters from both James Barry and Margaret Ann Bulkley amongst the artist’s papers. Alison Reboul, a document analysis expert, concluded that the letters were written by the same person.

Ahead of her time

In 1810, when Barry entered the University, it was a male only establishment and so deception was the only option for a woman hoping to pursue a medical career.

It was not until 1869 that Sophia Jex-Blake was reluctantly accepted to attend a limited number of classes in the School of Medicine.

An extraordinary life

After only two years of study, and probably at no more than 17 years of age, Barry graduated. Initially she worked at St Thomas' Hospital, London, before joining the Army as a medical officer. She was sent to South Africa a year later and gained a reputation as a first-class surgeon. It was in South Africa that Barry carried out the first successful caesarean section in 1826.

After she was dead I was told she was a woman. I should say she was the most hardened creature I ever met throughout the army.

Florence Nightingale

A Canadian legacy

In 1857 Barry was posted to Canada as inspector general of military hospitals.

She concerned herself with the everyday details of health and welfare and worked to improve the diet and lodgings of the soldiers and fought for the construction of more sophisticated sewage and drainage systems.

Dr James Barry died of influenza in London in 1865 after being forcibly retired by the army medical board in 1859.

This article was published on Apr 15, 2015