The Crossdressing Doctor Who Performed the First Successful Cesaraen Section

Cristen Conger

Dr. James Miranda Stuart Barry with her servant and dog, Psyche.
Dr. James Miranda Stuart Barry with her servant and dog, Psyche.
Wikimedia Commons

In the mid-18th century, when Prussian Dorothea Erxleben-Leporin became the first female doctor in modern history, the medical profession was strictly off-limits to women because people thought it would be downright dangerous to their health.

The intensive thinking and intellectualizing required would certainly send members of the fairer sex into hysteria and drain their fertility, so the pre-Enlightenment sexist rationale went; not to mention women lacked the physical strength to wield such impossibly imposing tools as handheld obstetrical forceps. Around 50 years after Erxleben-Leporin successfully petitioned the King of Prussia to grant her admission into medical school, Miranda Stuart was born in 1795. Stuart also wanted to become a doctor, but she took a shortcut around medical schools' no-women-allowed policies and began living as a man when she was 18.

Going by the name James Miranda Stuart Barry, the newly-minted Dr. Barry joined up with the British army as a hospital assistant after graduating from med school and climbed her way through the ranks to become medical inspector of South Africa. Throughout Dr. Barry's travels around Africa and the Caribbean, she earned a reputation for having a spitfire attitude, as a well as a notable appearance. "There is a certain effeminacy in his manner which he was always striving to overcome," wrote one contemporary, as noted in A Brief History of Medicine by Paul Strathern.

Married British aristocrat Lord Charles Somerset likely learned the reason behind said "effeminacy" since he and Barry were thought to have had an affair while both were stationed in Africa. Offering more evidence that hanky panky was happening between the two, Somerset also gave Barry a small poodle named Psyche. Dr. Barry wouldn't go down in the history books for that fleeting romance, however. (And thank goodness, otherwise I wouldn't have a good reason to write this blog post.)

After leaving Africa, Barry was transferred to Canada, technically becoming the nation's first female doctor. Even more importantly, sometime between 1815 and 1821 while all of that Somerset drama was likely going on, Barry performed one of the first successful cesarean sections in recorded history. The procedure was performed almost exclusively on dead or dying pregnant women in the hopes of saving the baby, which made Dr. Barry's success such a significant medical milestone. Dr. Barry didn't seem to make much of her impressive firsts, though. Not until after Barry died was her true identity revealed.