Women’s Day: Dr James Barry

Today is National Women’s Day in South Africa. It commemorates the many women – of all races and creeds – who marched against Apartheid’s Pass System on this day in 1956. (Obviously, women’s suffrage was of importance also.)

The changing face of medicine reminds me daily how lucky I am to be a woman today, rather than fifty years ago. Did you know that there are more females than males in my class?

So today I think about Dr James Barry, who was born a Briton girl but posed as a man in order to qualify as a doctor. While stationed in South Africa as a surgeon in the military, she performed the first known successful Cesarean section – successful in that both the mother and child lived.

Dr Barry is also noted for her emphasis on hygiene and cleanliness, which played a massive role in the survival of those injured during the Crimean war.

There is a lot of interest in Dr Barry’s life, and the South African Journal of Medicine has an excellent article on the subject here.

I am thankful that I do not have to pretend to be male in order to study medicine. I am thankful that my gender is unlikely to stand between myself and success. I’ve seen battered women and I’ve had a couple of professor’s write me off as a “little girl”, but it’s a lot better than it was for women a couple of decades ago.

I think, also, that times have become easier for transgender individuals, although in that sense we certainly have a long way to go. At any rate, if Dr Barry was a born woman who identified as a man, you know what… that’s okay too. I don’t claim to know so much about mind and body to have any knowledge of worth on the subject.

I hope that life will continue to get better for every woman of any profession, anywhere in the world.

4 thoughts on “Women’s Day: Dr James Barry

  1. I’m so glad you posted this! 😀 I think I read something that mentioned Dr Barry briefly a while ago (didn’t s/he offend Florence Nightingale at one point?) and never got round to properly looking her up (exams are my excuse for this omission). The article you linked to was really interesting! (Sorry for gushing a little – I just think that s/he was pretty awesome and inspirational).

    1. I don’t mind the gushing – it’s a good experience not to be the only gushing person 😛
      I did read something about offending Florence Nightingale, but I haven’t found a reliable source for it yet. I think, if it did indeed happen, that they sensed a kind of greatness about each other. You know how great people tend to be weird towards each other… or perhaps I’m just being weird.

      1. *awkwardly long time to reply as went away – sorry :S*
        I think I read it in a book about the history of medicine, but I can’t find it in the one I actually own, so it remains mysterious. I don’t think you’re being weird 🙂 – I suppose that for Barry there would also be strangeness of someone so similar, but so different.

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