2024 | Volume 25 | Issue 1

As surgical training became formalised, women were still excluded from surgical practice and weren’t allowed to attend university until the end of the 19th century. However, some determined women were able to overcome this barrier.


Mary Ann Bulkley aka James Barry
Mary Ann Bulkley was artist James Barry’s niece, and after he died, she adopted her uncle’s persona and attended the Edinburgh Medical School. Barry graduated in 1812 and spent the rest of his life as a military surgeon, rising to the rank of Inspector General.
Barry’s first posting was to Cape Town in 1816, where apart from improving sanitation and water supply, he performed one of the first-known caesarean sections.

Barry was a controversial character and intractable when it came to improvement in the conditions of the poor, frequently clashing with the military authorities. Before his  death in 1865, Barry stipulated that he was to be buried in his clothes. However, the woman who laid out and washed the dead, discovered that Barry was a woman. She informed the physician who had issued Barry’s death certificate, but he chose not to believe her.

Subsequent legal evidence suggests that James Barry who had spent his life as a successful military surgeon, was in fact, a woman.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

In 1865 Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, became the first woman in Britain to qualify as a physician and surgeon.

Qualified apothecaries were allowed to practice medicine and Anderson used this ‘loophole’ to access a medical education and become qualified. The apothecaries promptly banned women from sitting exams and although the Enabling Act of 1875 granted medical licenses to women, it was not until the early 20th century that women had untrammeled access to medical courses.