Margaret Ann Bulkley: The Victor/Victoria of Medicine


In the early 17th-century Britain, when no female students were admitted into medical schools, Margaret Ann Bulkley made history as the first female to graduate as a medical doctor from Edinburgh University and became the first British female surgeon, all while disguised as a man.

Born around 1789, in Ireland, Margaret moved with her mother to London after her Uncle James Barry—a distinguished artist—passed away in the early 1800s where two of his liberal-minded friends took her under their wings. The four of them together provided the ingredients for Margaret’s future as a physician; the disappearance of Margaret Bulkley and the appearance of a young medical student called James Barry was carefully orchestrated.

Barry graduated in 1812 and decided to join the British Army; surely a strange, yet ambitious, choice for someone with such a secret to hide. Her excellent credentials made her a good candidate, and she is said to have managed to get around the physical examination somehow. During her service period in the Army, Barry got promoted to high-ranked prestigious posts and was well-known for her professionalism and excellent manners.

The Military sent Barry around the world; yet, her biggest accomplishment was in South Africa in 1826. She performed an excellent Caesarean section surgery, becoming the first known instance of a British surgeon performing the surgery with both mother and child surviving.

The secret Dr. James Barry kept for over fifty years was only known after his/her death in 1865. Sophia Bishop, a maid at Barry’s lodging, discovered while laying out the body in preparation for burial that the person she had always known as a man was in fact a woman.

Margaret Bulkley was buried with full military honors in the graveyard at Kensal Green where Dr. James Barry’s tombstone can still be seen.

Cover photo: © RTÉ 2021.

**The original article is published in the SCIplanet, Spring 2014 issue.

About Us

SCIplanet is a bilingual edutainment science magazine published by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Planetarium Science Center and developed by the Cultural Outreach Publications Unit ...
Continue reading

Contact Us

P.O. Box 138, Chatby 21526, Alexandria, EGYPT
Tel.: +(203) 4839999
Ext.: 1737–1781

Become a member

© 2024 | Bibliotheca Alexandrina