Margaret Ann Bulkley | Surgeon | Medical Pioneer

A woman ahead of her time, who pretended to be a man to pursue a career where she was not welcome


Margaret Ann Bulkley was a war hero, a medical pioneer, and defied all odds to become a brilliant surgeon. Born in a time when women were not permitted to pursue medicine, she disguised herself as a boy and never looked back. After graduating from medical school she enlisted in the British military. She crafted the swashbuckling, flirtatious, “ladies’ man” persona of Dr. James Barry to avoid suspicion as she practiced medicine all over the British Empire. While in Cape Town, in 1826, she performed the first successful Caesarean section by a European doctor. In 1866, a future prime minister of South Africa was named James Barry Munnik Hertzog in her honor. She rose through the ranks of the British military to become the Inspector-General of Hospitals. She was a public health advocate who fought for better nutrition, sanitation and care for prisoners, lepers, soldiers and their families.

Only after she died, did anyone discover her secret. The scandal rocked the Victorian establishment, and the army placed an embargo on James Barry’s military record for a hundred years. Margaret Ann Bulkley could have stayed home, married and had kids. But she was determined to become a doctor even if it meant living a lie. She was not only the first British woman to graduate in medicine but also one of the day’s most infamous and respected surgeons.

Disclosure: Smita Nair Jain has nothing to disclose. She doesn’t own stock in any publicly traded companies and does not hold investments in the technology companies. She has equivalent of the American 401(k) plan in India that is automatically managed. (Updated: June 01, 2020)

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