Dr James Barry x

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Last week I was very fortunate to visit The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret just by London Bridge with the wonderful Julie from Vintage Attitude.  Hidden away, up a steep spiral staircase and nestled in the dark timbers of the attic of an old church the museum is caught in a sleepy, rather delicious time warp.

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It was part of St Thomas’s hospital – a hospital that was described as ancient way back in 1215…

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On one side is the herb garret and apothecary. And on the other – the oldest surviving operating theatre in Europe.

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What stories these walls could tell.

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But what really caught my eye was this picture of James (Miranda) Barry, an amazing woman who overcame the general prohibition on women studying Medicine by disguising herself as a man to become the first female British surgeon.  Barry qualified in Medicine in 1812 and went onto train as a surgeon at St. Thomas’s. In January 1813, she qualified as a Regimental Surgeon at the Royal College of Surgeons and over the next fifty years she rose through the ranks to become Inspector General of the Hospitals in the British Army.  No mean feat – and she must’ve been good because in Cape Town in 1826 this vegetarian, teetotalling surgeon performed the first documented successful Caesarean Section where both mother and baby survived.  Barry even met Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, who noted in her memoirs:

‘He kept me standing in the midst of quite a crowd of soldiers, Commissariat, servants, camp followers etc every one of who behaved like a gentlemen during the scolding I received while (she) behaved like a brute…After he was dead, I was told that (she) was a woman..I should say that (she) was the most hardened creature I ever met.’

Barry spent most of her laters years with her constant companion and manservant John (in the picture with her above) and it was only on her deathbed that she was finally discovered to be a woman.  Barry was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in London in 1865.

What a truly remarkable human being with an incredible story of which this must only be the very tip of the iceberg..an unsung heroine who surely should at the very least share the same historical podium as Florence Nightingale?…I am desperate to know more and now feel compelled to visit Kensal Green Cemetery to find her grave…I can’t help but wonder which name is on her headstone?…and what it might say?

 Laters, Kate x

43 comments

  1. LoveLyndaLovely

    I love the Old Operating Theatre – saw a play there a couple of years ago but had no idea of this fascinating story. So many questions? Did her family know? Did she live as a man to study medicine or before that? Being vegetarian would probably have been the biggest shock! I’m now going to google away – thanks for sharing this! x

  2. Laura Lynn

    That’s insane! To hide your sex for your entire life so you can practice medicine? Talk about a calling! I’d love to see a movie about this. Did you happen to see Albert Dodds-I think it was called. With Glenn Close? About the woman who was a butler. Fascinating to see the operating theatre. And frightening…that seems like an awfully SHORT table! Were one’s legs just left dangling off the table?

    • Maison Bentley Style

      This operating theatre was just for women….might explain table! Not seen Glenn Close film but now very curious…and apparently in Canada Dr Barry was dramatised in a series by CHCH hosted by Pierre Berton… xxx

      • Laura Lynn

        That was one of my favorite films last year (year before?) The idea of being operated on ‘back then’ just gives me the willies! They didn’t even commonly use anesthesia until the mid-1800’s. Argh! Must look for series. Sounds great.

  3. theblackberryboys

    Interesting story! The operating theater looks scary 🙂 Not too sterile 😦 probably alot of women had to dress up as men to do things they wanted to but were not allowed to just because they were women 😦

  4. mrsjamesbarry

    Reblogged this on Knife before wife before life and commented:
    One of my WordPress friends has written this lovely post about her recent visit to Tower Bridge where she found out rather a lot about James Barry, who is a heroine of mine, obviously. It looks like a great day out in London, and is as always for Kate a beautifully illustrated and interesting post. Xx

  5. KerryCan

    I love that this place was considered ancient in 1215–can’t find that sort of ancient in the US! And the woman’s story is very compelling–I hope you’ll follow up when you find her grave.

    • Maison Bentley Style

      The very original hospital was started by monks..although not at this site. But there is still a St Thomas’s in London, over looking the Houses of Parliament on the other side of the river..I had both Bella and Charlie there! I will def follow up..I’m intrigued xxx

  6. fashionassist

    The theatre is absolutely a treasure trove of facts and mysteries…
    and can’t get over the facts and mysteries of Dr. Barry…
    wow, how her inner {ingenuity} voice inspired her to be…
    what a “world” told her she could not be!!
    Another fascinating post Kate~ xo

  7. dievca

    My mind goes to all the practical things about being a Woman and how hard or easy it would be to hide them (monthly, lack of facial hair, breasts, etc.) Then my mind goes to her family — did they see her, occasionally? Disown her? Think her dead? Applaud her calling? WOW.

    • Maison Bentley Style

      From what I have read, she had the full support of her family – it was through her family connections that the idea was hatched. Apparently they had an influential friend from Venezuela – the idea was the Barry would qualify and practise in Venezuela although that didn’t happen. But she travelled on a boat from Ireland to Edinburgh where she studied…on board they were Aunt and Nephew..a Michael du Preez, a retired urologist, has done some in-depth research in to the story..his book is now with an agent awaiting a publisher..really hope it gets published! xxx

  8. The Fashion Huntress

    Wow- what a great story. That’s so impressive and inspiring! There’s really been so many amazing women in medicine that seem to be somewhat unsung heroes, perhaps because their stories aren’t as well known as others. Thanks for sharing this! She’s one of my new fav heroines!

    • Maison Bentley Style

      I can only think it was because people felt duped that they let her story fall by the way – that and the fact that even at the end of her life women were still very much second class citizens. But she really deserves to be celebrated and admired for what she managed to achieve..there’s even talk that she was at the Battle of Waterloo! xxx

  9. Angie Mc

    I absolutely love the pictures you’ve shared, especially the first. I adore glass, especially colored and stained glass with light shining through it. I recall my mother propping little bottles on her windows just like in the picture. I have modern windows with vertical panes…need to figure out a way to get some bottles on them 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  10. Maison Bentley Style

    I can’t imagine being on a boat or at a battlefield and managing to keep everything secret..just is madness – and yet she did it. I will take her some flowers from all of us amazed by her strength and determination xxx

  11. Jade

    What a great story – you always have to visit places like this in person don’t you to find details like this. I also love, love, love your first photo with the backlit amber-glass medicine bottles, and slightly menacing botanical additions! Jx

  12. Anny

    Oh, if I ever get back to London, I will be so very excited to visit this operating theatre. The last time we were there, I did make time for the Florence Nightingale Museum.