Friday, 15 March 2013

Fooling the world for half a century

July 25th, 1865
In one swift move, Sophia Bishop pulls the sweaty blanket off the frail figure. She is a charwoman and responsible to lay out the body of the recently deceased. But she has no patience to consider the man’s final wish - that under no circumstances should he be changed out of the clothes in which he had died. After all, the man had had dysentery and he needs to be washed before his burial. Sophia, with washbowl, soap and washcloth at the ready, pulls off his nightshirt and, with a cry of astonishment, reveals a fifty year old secret.
Dr James Barry, one of the most highly respected surgeons of his days, was in fact a woman.

Dr. Barry Source: Wikipedia
Margaret Ann Burkley hatched form her mother’s womb into the beautiful city of Cork, Ireland, at the end of the 18th century. She was a bright child who soon expressed the wish to be a doctor. But how could she ever study medicine? Her parents were but simple green grocers and did not have the funds to support their daughter. The situation worsened, as Margaret’s father was sent to prison when he could not pay his debts. But even if Margaret’s parents had been rich, she was only a girl and would not be allowed admission at a medical school.

And yet, she managed to enter the school of medicine at Edinburgh University in 1809 at the age of fourteen. But she did so under the name of James Miranda Stuart Barry, an identity she would keep until her death.

As Sophia Bishop pulled off Margaret’s night shirt, a life-long secret was revealed that embarrassed the British Military so much, they refused to publish an obituary and placed a 100 year embargo on Dr Barry’s military records.
What a shame, that it was a woman who had given 50 years of loyal and distinguished service, who won great acclaim as a surgeon and was the first to perform a Caesarean section in which both mother and child survived (the grateful parents named the boy James Barry Munnik Herzog, who later became South Africa’s Prime Minister).

Margaret was an extraordinary doctor with a fierce personality who successfully fooled the world for fifty years. 


  1. A 100-year embargo on his/her records? That seems over kill. If this distinguished doctor could not be recognized upon her death for her many accomplishments because she decided to keep her privates private, it makes one wonder how many other ladies chose assumed IDs to pursue a career and have never been recognized?

    Great post.

  2. Hi nrlymrtl,
    thank you! Yeah, I do wonder how many women disguised her gender and how they could accomplish such a feat. Or how many have been burned at the stake, for example?. Girls and women still chose to masquerade as men to escape violence and oppression - afghan girls, for example.
    Cheers Annelie

  3. ...burned on the stake for wearing men's clothes or doing men's jobs I meant. Typing too fast...