Margaret Bulkley AKA Dr James Miranda Barry - Irish grocer’s daughter and British Army Medical Officer


  London in the summer of 1865 was in the midst of a stifling heatwave. The general unsanitary conditions of the streets combined with the unusually high temperature to produce a vicious epidemic of chronic diarrhoea, which swept through the area killing thousands of unfortunate citizens. In July alone there were well over 500 deaths from this dreadful condition. One of these ill-fated casualties was ‘a male person of about 70 years’ who passed away at their home in Margaret Street, Marylebone. Dr James Barry was a British Army veteran who had recently retired from nearly half a century’s service during which he had gained the very senior position of Inspector General of Hospitals. Despite this he was to meet with an undignified end when he succumbed to the ravages of the disease.

   Barry had left strict instructions that his body not be disturbed by post-mortem, an interesting decision for a physician who had understood the importance of practical anatomy in modern medicine.  Despite this request, Barry’s body was stripped and washed to prepare for burial by a servant, Sophia Bishop who afterwards made a startling claim; that the celebrated doctor and 46-year veteran of the British Military was in fact a woman, and according to the tell-tale marks upon her body she may even have been a mother.

So how did a woman become a military surgeon fifty-two years before the first female doctor in the UK, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson officially became qualified?

Over the years many have speculated about her parentage and origins including some wild theories that Barry was in fact the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of York or even the Prince Regent himself. These theories are based purely upon the fact that Barry seems to have been able to attract powerful mentors and protectors throughout his career, and many contemporaries dismissed the idea that a woman would have been able to climb to the most senior medical post in the British military without a powerful, invisible sponsor. The truth however both more mundane and extraordinary; Barry was in fact Margaret Ann Bulkley, the daughter of an Irish catholic grocer. 

   Left destitute by her father and brothers economic negligence, Margaret was left to make her own way in the world. With intelligence, wit and a dogged determination, her main hurdle to success was the prejudice towards her sex. Barred from gaining a medical degree from any university in the British Isles, Margaret took a very bold track of disguising herself as a man and adotpting the name James Barry in memory of her uncle. In this disguise 'James Barry' studied and was granted a legitimate medical degree from Edinburgh University in 1812. Barry's military service took him to the shores of South Africa and the West Indies where he made his name as an expert in epidemic diseases in the tropical climates. But perhaps the most famous of his accomplishments was the performance of the the first recorded caesarean section in the British Empire, in which both mother and child had survived. Barry did all of this whilst keeping his most precious secret. he was in fact born a women.

*Whilst the change in personal pronoun might appear to be a mistake this is in fact done very deliberatlely and was something I thought very hard about whilst compiling Barry's tale. It is is apparant to me that through Barry's instructions to have no examination of his body that he had no intention of ever revealing his true gender and so I have attempted to respect his wishes by referring to Margaret as 'she' but after his trasnsformation to Barry heareafter refer to him using the male pronoun. 



Kit Cavenaugh 1706 illustration

The ‘Pretty Dragoon’

“I heard the cannon play, and the small shot rattle about me” [1]

   Among the wounded at the Battle of Ramilles 1706, in modern day Belgium, lay a trooper by the name of Private Christopher Walsh. Known to his fellow comrades as ‘the pretty dragoon’ due to his soft complexion and youthful good looks, Walsh had ironically survived the battle with French troops for the village of Autreglize unscathed, only to be knocked unconscious by a stray shell on the ride back to camp. This was not the first time his involvement in the Spanish War of Succession had resulted in injury for Private Walsh. Enlisting at 26 years of age in the Duke of Marlborough’s infantry, Walsh had his first taste of battle at Landen 1693, where he received an injury to the ankle which kept him off the field for two months.  Walsh was injured again in 1702, this time in the ranks of the Second Dragoons Royal Scots Greys, when a musket ball to the hip proved serious enough to require surgery in the field.

   Battlefield surgery in the 18th Century could prove just as gruelling and deadly as the injuries themselves. With little in the way of real medical supplies available, no pain relief beyond a tot of brandy, and appallingly poor hygiene; a soldier could face the removal of shrapnel or even the loss of limbs by rudimentary procedures using razor blades, saws and even kitchen knives as surgical instruments. The threat of infection was rampant with patients, instruments and surgeons remaining unwashed between surgeries. For Private Walsh, however this practice proved his saviour for had the surgeons stripped his body to prepare for surgery they would have made a startling discovery: Private Walsh was in fact a woman. 

    On this occasion, Walsh was able to survive her wounds with her secret undiscovered and continued to fight, sleep, drink, and carouse alongside her fellow soldiers without revealing the truth of her sex for a further four years. At Ramilles, however it would appear her good luck had come to an end. Unconscious and vulnerable she was taken to the hospital in Meldre, where this time to check for further injuries, she was stripped to the waist. Upon seeing her naked torso for the first time the surgeon exclaimed ‘Ye gods! This soldier is a woman – look these nipples have been sucked!’ [2] Private Walsh was not only a woman; she was also a mother.

An Independent Woman

   Born Christian Cavenaugh in 1667 daughter of wealthy tenant farmers, Kit (as she was known) was well educated for her station in life. Her parents had ensured she was raised with the manners of their betters. She could read, sew, play piano and was trained to run the family home and farm. With a healthy dowry from her father’s brewery business in Dublin, Kit would have been in the perfect position to one day gain an advantageous marriage. However, Kit was always far more comfortable out in the field with the cowhands than in the parlour. After an indiscretion with a family friend, Kit left her home to live with her aunt in Dublin who ran a public house called the ‘Pig and Bagpipes’. This lifestyle suited her boisterous personality much more and she was to eventually inherit the business from her aunt and in the process gained complete and total independence. 

   Richard Walsh had been a servant of her aunt and as the new landlady was now under Kit’s employ.  Before Kit would consent to marry him, she proposed an audacious agreement in a similar vain to a modern day prenuptial agreement. She gained a promise from Richard that he would not try to claim her worldly possessions as his own. Instead in her own words he declared he would remain her servant and resolved she would remain mistress of her belongings, including her business. Of course, this would not have been at all legally tenable, but it was enough to assure Kit that she would maintain her authority as landlady, and clearly, she was the authority within the marriage as well. Kit seemed to have accomplished the impossible for a woman of her time. She was a happily married mother of two, while maintaining her independence and respectability as a successful business woman. However, this bliss was not to last, four years after the marriage in 1692, Kit was heavily pregnant with their third child when Richard failed to return home from an errand. He had left to pay the suppliers on James Street in Dublin carrying with him the huge sum of £50; he never returned. Instead Richard had fallen foul of the press gangs which roamed the streets of coastal towns acquiring recruits through force or deception.

  Kit heard nothing of the fate of her husband for 12 months and grieved his loss, until she received a heartbreaking letter.

Dear Cristian,

This is the twelfth letter I have sent you without any answer to my former, which would both surprise and very much grieve me, did I not flatter myself that your silence proceeds from the miscarriage of my letters. It is from this opinion that I repeat the account of my sudden and unpremeditated departure, and the reason of my having enlisted… It is impossible for me to paint the despair I was in, finding myself thus divided from my dear wife and children, landed on a strange shore, without money or friends to support me. I raved, tore my hair, and curst my drunken folly, which brought upon me this terrible misfortune, which I thought in vain to remedy by getting a ship to carry me back, but there was none to be found…I now am, though much against my inclination, a private sentinel in Lord O--- ‘s regiment of foot, where I fear I must pass the remainder of a wretched life… [3]

   Kit was in despair at this news. Her husband and the father of her children had come back from the dead, but she was forever to be separated from him. Nevertheless, a woman of her fortitude and forbearance was not going to allow her happy home to be ripped apart by war and circumstances beyond her control. Instead she determined to mount a rescue, follow him across Europe and bring him home.  But she would not go in the traditional female role as a camp follower, to mend and launder; no, she would fight to bring her husband home, she would be a soldier. Kit immediately began to organise her departure. She left her children with family and a nurse for her youngest child. Her middle child had tragically died. She then set out to obtain her disguise. She cut her hair and donned her husband’s attire; a suit coat and breeches, a frilled white shirt, stockings with frills at the knees and a quilted waist coat to conceal her breasts. She also purchased extra shirts, a hat, a wig and a silver hilted sword. She then concealed about her person 50 guineas with which to buy her husband’s freedom and set out to join the local regiment and bring her ‘brother’ home.


1.    Defoe, Daniel, Life and adventures of Mrs Christian Davies commonly known as Mother Ross on Campaign with the Duke of Marlborough (reprinted by Leonaur, 2011), p. 24

2.    Holland, Anne, The Secret of Kit Cavenaugh – A Remarkable Irishwoman and Soldier  (Cork: The Collins Press, 2013), p. 155

3.    Defoe, p. 21

Read more about Kits life and adventures in 'Women Warriors Ten Courageous Women who went to war' By Tracey-Ann Knight

"A fascinating and well-documented read"

History of War Magazine