The British Empire and its effect on Plymouth

James Barry / Margaret Ann Bulkley

James Barry is technically the first woman doctor to graduate from medical college in Britain's history. The reason that she was able to achieve this remarkable feat some half a century before women were permitted to become doctors is because she spent her entire professional life masquerading as a man. As if this feat was not enough, she was also the youngest to pass the necessary exams also.

Often James Barry was teased by his colleagues over the sound of his voice. He often felt he had to go so far as to challenge his tormentors to duels and on at least one occasion shot one man dead through the lung. (The teasing died down after this particular incident.)

She was posted to Plymouth as a hospital assistant at the Stoke Military Hospital at the tail end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1813. Whilst in Plymouth she was promoted to assistant surgeon before being posted to Cape Town in 1816. For the next half a century she presented herself as a man until she died of dysentery in 1865. She had an illustrious and varied career as a military doctor all over the Empire. She eventually rose to the rank of Inspector General in charge of all military hospitals.

Her appearance certainly caused people to suspect that something was strange; she was tiny in an army of men and her hands were remarked to be particularly small and effeminate. Despite these concerns, her medical knowledge and manner were never questioned and she retired on half pay due to illness in 1858 after a full career. This picture was taken in 1860 with her servant by her side.

It was not until her death that her secret was discovered whilst preparing her body for burial.

Empire in Your Backyard: Plymouth Article | Significant Individuals

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by Stephen Luscombe