She Practiced Medicine 50 Years Before It Was Legal For Women To Do So

History | Did You Know

She Practiced Medicine 50 Years Before It Was Legal For Women To Do So

There's no shortage of female role models, but one we've never heard of might be the most interesting. Margaret Ann Bulkley was Britain's first female doctor, and she was licensed and practiced a full 50 years before British women were allowed in university. How did she do it? She did it as a man.

Bulkley had a long and successful career as a military surgeon from the early 1800s until 1864, when she retired against her wishes. She did it all under the name James Barry, and it wasn't until she died of Dysentery that anyone even knew she was a woman.

James Barry
Gillian Treacy

When in her late teens Bulkley enrolled at the University of Edinburgh, under the name Barry, but her clean face and unbroken voice made the school assume she was a boy not past puberty. They initially refused her entry on basis of her age.

With the help of her family solicitor, who was in on the ruse, she proved her age and successfully graduated in 1813. That's 52 years before Elizabeth Garrett Anderson achieved her license to practice medicine.

Some still consider Anderson the first female to practice because she did so openly.

Shortly after graduating Bulkley was commissioned as a hospital assistant in the British Army. Thus began a long career filled with acclaim. In addition to improving soldiers conditions wherever she went she also became the first British doctor to perform a Caesarian section in Africa where both the mother and child lived.

Military Service
Irish Central

After she died a midwife made the startling discovery and wrote to those closest to Bulkley. Most were shocked, and even further surprised by the evidence that Bulkley had been a mother.

Many people contend that Bulkley was not the first female to practice medicine, but rather the first transgendered man to become a doctor. It's nearly impossible to tell since she never recorded her thoughts on the matter.

Voice From Ireland

Bulkley was buried with the name James Barry, with full military honors.

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