Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time

A new biography of Dr James Barry
by Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield

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Dr James Barry (1789–1865) was many things in his life: Inspector General of Hospitals, army surgeon, duellist, reformer, ladykiller, eccentric. He performed the first successful Caesarean delivery in the British Empire, outraged the military establishment, and gave Florence Nightingale a dressing down at Scutari. At home he was surrounded by a menagerie of animals, including a cat, a goat, a parrot and a terrier. But most astonishingly, long ago in Cork, Ireland, he had been a young girl and a mother.

Drawing on a decade of research in archives all over the world, including the unearthing of previously unknown material, Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield tell the amazing true story of Margaret Anne Bulkley, the young woman who broke the rules of Georgian society to become one of the most respected and controversial army surgeons of the 19th century. In an extraordinary life, she crossed paths with the British Empire’s great and good, from royalty and rebels to soldiers and slaves. A medical pioneer, she rose to a position that no woman was allowed to occupy; in her male disguise she became the first woman to attain an MD and membership of the Royal College of Surgeons, and eventually became the first woman to reach the rank of general in the British Army. However, for all her successes, Margaret's long, audacious deception also left her isolated and emotionally scarred, as well as costing her the chance to be with the man she loved.


Selected by BBC Radio 2’s Fact not Fiction Book Club

Book of the Week in
The Times


This is the extraordinary and remarkable story of the transformation of Margaret Bulkley, a red-haired Irish girl from Cork, into Dr James Barry, physician, medical reformer, friend of the rich, friend of the poor and fearless and irascible scourge of the stupidity, complacency, ineptitude and greed of Britain’s Colonial establishment. Dr James Barry kept his great secret for over fifty years and the truth that he was, in fact, a woman was only revealed to an incredulous public after his death. Meticulously researched and written with great verve, this biography is about as good as it gets.
Neil Mc Kenna, author of Fanny & Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England

10 RCS exam

The examination of a surgical candidate at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, 1811. Margaret Bulkley had to undergo this ordeal while in disguise as James Barry. (RCS)

This is a fascinating account of the life and career of Dr James Barry as a doctor working in the early nineteenth century. Although Dr Barry obtained a Diploma from this College in 1813 it is only now through this book we are able to fully understand and recognise her achievements.
Clare Marx, President, Royal College of Surgeons of England (first woman to hold that position)

22 Scutari

Scutari, Constantinople, scene of James Barry’s confrontation with Florence Nightingale. (National Army Museum)

Immensely enjoyable. It’s a fascinating story, told with verve, sensitivity and skill – the result of an awe-inspiring amount of research and detective work, managed with delicacy and flair… A marvellous read, and a story worth telling.
Rodney Bolt, author of The Impossible Life of Mary Benson


Left: General Francisco de Miranda, the charismatic Venezuelan revolutionary who befriended the young Miss Margaret Bulkley and had a profound influence on her life. (Wikimedia.org)
Right: James Barry RA, painter. He was Margaret Bulkley’s uncle, and she borrowed his name when she posed as a man. (V & A)

This fantastic book is so much more than a biography of a very remarkable woman. The thread of her personal story weaves its way through a meticulously researched record of a fascinating period in world history. This covers dramatic changes which took place in her lifetime far beyond the emancipation of women. It includes much social history at home and such events as abolition of the slave trade in America, as well as the transition from sail to steam; the attempts at the military control of the British Empire and the rebellion against it; wars that changed the face of the world; fundamental developments in medical and surgical practice due to scientific advances, and much more besides. Many aspects are relevant to continuing problems of today. The blending of all of these together and elegantly written makes it compulsive reading.
Dame Margaret Turner-Warwick, former President, Royal College of Physicians (first woman to hold that position)

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buy Dr James Barry now

Amazon.co.uk • Waterstones • Oneworld
WH Smith • Blackwell's
Book Depository • Wordery

Australia: Booktopia • Fishpond


Selected by BBC Radio 2’s Fact not Fiction Book Club

Book of the Week in
The Times

published in the UK and Australia by Oneworld Publications


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© Jeremy Dronfield 2017