Was the first female doctor in England a man?

Whenever historians discuss the “first” of anything, they use qualifiers. In the case of the first female doctor in the UK, there might be several candidates, depending on how one qualifies the word “doctor.” The innumerable wise women and healers who made diagnoses and prescribed treatment for centuries may be unknown to history. So we define “doctor” in terms of official qualification and credentials.

The honor of being the first female doctor in the UK thus goes to an extraordinary person, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. Although she had been refused admissions to the College of Surgeons and Physicians because of her sex, she was admitted to the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries because their rules stated nothing forbidding women (an oversight they remedied shortly afterward). The University of Paris then admitted her to the examination necessary to certify her as a medical doctor in the 1860s.

Before her, one might argue, was Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman on the UK Medical Register as a practicing physician. She would not have been able to obtain a medical degree but was grandfathered into the Medical Act of 1858.

But there is an even more startling possibility. Dr. James Barry was a famous figure in nineteenth-century military circles. He obtained his medical degree from the University of Edinburgh and might have been prevented from sitting his exams due to his youthful appearance but for the intervention of the Earl of Buchan, who was friends with his tutor.

 Portrait of James Barry, Wellcome Collection

Dr. Barry was a good physician, known for an excellent bedside manner, and he became a talented surgeon in the army. He served in South Africa and the Caribbean and performed the first successful European caesarean section in Africa. He became Inspector General in 1857 and traveled the British Empire enforcing sanitation in hospitals.

There is much evidence of Dr. Barry’s personality. He was known for his squeaky voice and violent temper. Florence Nightingale, whom he met in the Crimea, hated him, even though his emphasis on hygiene was as energetic as her own. Others reported that he was quarrelsome in the extreme.

He also never undressed in front of other people. This, and his clean-shaven face, curly hair, and short stature do not appear to have caused much comment among most of his colleagues. Later, however, there were rumors of duels caused by insults about his appearance and the expected posthumous claims that “I always suspected” or “I always knew.”

When he died in 1865 of dysentery, a charwoman named Sophia Bishop laid out his body. This action was against Barry’s known wishes that under no circumstances should his body be disrobed in death. The woman claimed that his body had full female genitalia and stretch marks, indicating a possible pregnancy. Barry’s own doctor, Major D.R. McKinnon, simply refused to care about his patient’s sex, having been called upon to identify the body and sign the death certificate. He had written the sex as male on the certificate. When Bishop told him her observations and tried to get him to pay for her silence, McKinnon famously reported to George Graham of the General Register Office:

The woman seems to think that she had become acquainted with a great secret and wished to be paid for keeping it. I informed her that all Dr Barry’s relatives were dead, and that it was no secret of mine, and that my own impression was that Dr Barry was a Hermaphrodite. But whether Dr Barry was a male, female, or hermaphrodite I do not know, nor had I any purpose in making the discovery as I could positively swear to the identity of the body as being that of a person whom I had been acquainted with as Inspector-General of Hospitals for a period of years.

The army sealed the records, supposedly for a hundred years. Isobel Rae’s 1958 book The Strange Story of Dr. James Barry, based on access to those papers, broke the story in the subtitle: Army Surgeon, Inspector General of Hospitals, discovered on death to be a woman. The only evidence, despite the new batch of papers, was the word of the woman preparing the body.

James Barry qualified as a doctor in 1812, so if one says he was female, then he would be the first woman doctor by several decades. The story has fascinated many, and more documents have since been uncovered demonstrating that Barry was Margaret Ann Bulkley in his earlier life. (This includes items like a letter from young Barry to a family solicitor where the recipient wrote “Miss Bulkley” on the outside of the envelope.*) The current wisdom that James Barry was, in fact, a woman, is happily disseminated in more recent books, both for adults and children.

It is natural that current discussions of gender would play into how we interpret James Barry today. Did he simply dress as a man to have a career not open to women? Is it right to call him the “first female medical doctor” if we believe he identified as male? Should we call him a transgender man? Or is it best to respect his own view of himself?

Even if we accept the report of the avaricious charwoman and the handwriting analysis of Margaret Bulkley, we have no way of knowing whether Dr. Barry actually identified as male or would simply be labeled a cross-dresser hiding his female identity. His last wish that he not be undressed for burial seems to speak to something deeper. But here, we are certainly engaging in supposition unsupported by the sources. Instead, it might be best to celebrate an extraordinary career, acknowledge the good he did with his medical skills, and enjoy critiques of his explosive personality from a safe distance.

*see Pain, Stephanie. “The Extraordinary Dr. James Barry.” New Scientist, vol. 197, no. 2646, Mar. 2008, pp. 46–47.

Also published in Medium: Frame of Reference

Comments are closed.