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Doctor Barry’s Amazing Secret

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Mike Procter and Marina Santee tell the amazing story of James Barry. For many years, she pretended to be a man so that she could work as a doctor.

Voice 1 

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Mike Procter.

Voice 2 

And I’m Marina Santee. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand – no matter where in the world they live.

Click here to follow along with this program on YouTube.

Voice 1 

It was July the 25th, 1865. Doctor James Barry was dead. He had been one of the best doctors in the British Army. He had risen to a high position in the military. Now his body would be buried. But the woman preparing his body was about to be very shocked. When she removed his clothes, she discovered that Doctor Barry was not a man. Doctor Barry was, in fact, a woman.

Voice 2 

Today’s Spotlight program is on the amazing story of Doctor Barry. By acting like a man, she was able to become a doctor. And as a doctor, she saved many lives and achieved great success.

Voice 1 

So who was Doctor Barry? Well, she was born over 200 years ago – as Margaret Bulkley. Her father owned a small business in Ireland. When Margaret was young, the family began to have money problems. Margaret’s father could not pay his debts. So officials sent him to prison

Voice 2 

After that, Margaret and her mother had almost no money. So they travelled to London.  They hoped to find work and make enough money to keep them alive.

Voice 1 

Margaret wrote letters to her mother’s brother.  She asked him for help. She hoped her uncle would help her achieve an education. Sadly, he was not very kind to her. But, after his death, some of his friends were kind. They helped Margaret get an education.  And she was an excellent student.

Voice 2 

It is unclear exactly what happened next. But together, Margaret, her mother and her uncle’s friends prepared a plan. They decided Margaret would study to become a doctor. But, at that time in Britain, only men could become doctors. So Margaret would need to make people think she was a man.

Voice 1 

This was a major decision. Margaret would have to lie.  She could not tell anyone her secret. Margaret decided that being a doctor was worth it. So Margaret put away her young woman’s clothes. And she began to wear the clothes of a young man. She and her mother left London. They sailed to Scotland where no one knew them. There, Margaret would start medical school.

Voice 2 

Margaret would no longer be Margaret Bulkley. Instead, she called herself James Barry – the name of her dead uncle. Only three other people knew Margaret Bulkley’s secret. And these friends provided money and support for her medical studies.

Voice 1 

When Margaret finished medical school, she joined the British Army. There, she became a great surgeon. She skilfully operated on people’s bodies. And she saved many lives.

Voice 2 

Around the year 1815, the Army sent Doctor Barry to serve in South Africa.  There she made medical history. She became the first British surgeon to perform a Caesarian section. Doctor Barry performed this operation on a woman unable to give birth naturally. She cut open the mother’s stomach and removed the baby. Both the mother and baby survived. The mother named the baby boy James Barry, to honour the skilled doctor.

Voice 1 

Doctor Barry also worked hard to improve living conditions wherever she served. In South Africa she discovered the cause of Cape Town’s bad water. And she worked to get a better water system.

Voice 2 

Doctor Barry also used her power to reform the medical system. She made new rules so that only trained people could give out medicines to patients. She also introduced changes for patients in hospitals – like receiving better food and fresh air. And Doctor Barry improved care for soldiers and their families.

Voice 1 

Doctor Barry cared well for sick people and soldiers. However, she did not always have good relationships with her Army chiefs. She often got into trouble. When war broke out in Eastern Europe she made a request. She asked to serve in the Crimean War. But her chiefs said No.

Voice 2 

However, she went without their approval. There she met Florence Nightingale. Nightingale was a nurse. She achieved great honour for her work with injured soldiers. But James Barry and Florence Nightingale did not like each other. Barry often got angry quickly. And she often shouted at people. Florence Nightingale later wrote:

Voice 3 

“I say she was the hardest creature I ever met in the whole Army.”

Voice 1 

But Florence Nightingale and the Army officers never imagined Doctor Barry’s secret. Doctor Barry had a smooth face and high voice, but she acted like a man. She hid her female body under extra clothes. And she did a job that only men did. So no one suspected she was a woman.  She kept her secret for fifty years … until the day she died.

Voice 2 

But even then some mystery remained. The woman who discovered James Barry’s secret did not tell people immediately. She waited until Doctor Barry’s body was buried. So no one could prove if she was telling the truth.

Voice 1 

The British Army denied that James Barry was a man. They closed Doctor Barry’s Army records for one hundred years. They did not let anyone see them. Many people talked about Doctor Barry’s story, but there was no evidence. Was the woman telling the truth or had she made up the story? No one knew for sure … until 2009.

Voice 2 

At this time, a South African doctor began researching Doctor Barry. This doctor’s name was Michael du Preez. And he found evidence that Doctor Barry was a woman. Doctor du Preez found letters. Some were written by Margaret Bulkley. And others were written by James Barry. These letters were tested by hand writing experts. And the writing in all the letters was the same. The letters proved that Margaret Bulkley and James Barry were the same person.

Voice 1 

Most history books state that Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was the first female doctor in England.  And they state that she became a doctor in 1865. But Doctor du Preez’s research shows that Anderson was not Britain’s first female doctor. Instead, that honour goes to Margaret Bulkley – a poor, young woman from Ireland who secretly achieved that record, over 50 years earlier.

Voice 2 

The writer of this program was Alan Harris.  The producer was Luke Haley. The voices you heard were from the United Kingdom and the United States. All quotes for this program were adapted and voiced by Spotlight.  You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at radioenglish.net. This program is called, ‘Doctor Barry’s Amazing Secret’.

Voice 1 

If you have a comment or question about any Spotlight program you can email us at radio@radioenglish.net. Or you can leave a comment on the script page of the program.  You can also find Spotlight on Facebook and Twitter – just search for spotlightradio.

Voice 2 

We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

Question:  

Are there women doctors in your country? If yes, do they receive equal treatment to men doctors? Or are they treated differently?

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