top of page
  • Writer's pictureBridget Walsh

Imagined Memoir: The former Margaret Bulkley - Shapeshifter and Surgeon

If I was ever going to be a doctor, then I had to act.

Girls were helpless and useless in those days. Find yourself a husband to look after you, have a few babies, stay at home.

That’s what middle-class girls had to look forward to in 1800’s Ireland or England. When Father died, my mother was left only his debts, so we left Ireland on the boat to London to find uncle James. He was a famous portrait painter and might help us.

I decided on the ferry across to England to change. I’d take charge of my life. How? I had brought along a pair of trousers, cut my hair and called myself James Barry. Mother went along with it, what else could they do? There was a chance one of us could earn some money. But first, I needed an education.

Edinburgh University in 1809

With help from my uncle's friends, I got a place at Edinburgh University to study medicine.

Yes, of course, those young know-it-alls spotted me, but when I challenged them to duels, they soon shut up.

I was the first ever woman in Britain to qualify as a doctor in 1812. They thought I was a precocious boy. Imagine what the newspapers would have said. ‘Woman cheats in medical school!’

A very young Charles Darwin studied there in 1825, but didn't complete his studies.

Anyway, in for a penny, as they say in England. Once qualified, I signed on as an army surgeon and travelled the world. The only time I let my guard down was when I met Lord Charles in Capetown. He saw me and loved me. We were almost caught once, but we brazened it out. I took leave of absence to be with him in England when he was sick, and I held his dear hand as he died.

I like to think I helped on my way. There was that young army wife, a girl whose baby was stuck in the birth canal. I used my scalpel to get the baby out and saved both lives that day. That child was named after me, I learned later. Anyway, there’s lots of official information about my army career if you care to seek it out.

I do remember meeting Florence Nightingale at Crimea. I had to bite my tongue not to tell her what I had achieved. I could see she was jealous. In those years, I travelled the world with the British Army, from Capetown to Canada, Malta to Mauritius. And all the while I eschewed eating meat. If you had seen the way those poor animals were slaughtered, you would never touch meat although I kept a pet goat for my milk. My gentle servant, John, cared for me. Of course he knew my secret, but never let on.

On my travels, I heard that a woman, Elizabeth Blackwell, was the first woman to qualify as a doctor in the United States in 1849. Dear Reader, join me in a wry smile.

I died in my bed, in London in 1865.


Inspiration for Irish women in my novels.

James Barry inspired me to allow one of my characters to change their sex. Jane Keating travelled to Waterford and Dublin, dressed as a young man. She said it was for safety on the road. Then she continued in her disguise to get a job as a typesetter in Dublin. She only reverted to being a woman to save her friend, Annie, from transportation. But Jane, for a few months, felt the same freedom that James Barry had all her life.


This file is licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Accessed 11/3/2023


Thanks to

Depuis, Nicola, (2009), "Mna na hEireann", Dublin, Mercier Press

James Barry, Surgeon. accessed 11/3/202223


bottom of page