Wednesday, August 4, 2010


In 1816, Dr. James Barry arrived at the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa. He said he’d trained as a doctor at Edinburgh University, in Scotland. He had three years of medical experience in the army. He also said that he was only 17 years old. No one knew who his parents were, or where he had grown up. Dr. Barry made powerful friends. One of them was Lord Charles Somerset, the British governor of the Cape. Soon after Dr. Barry arrived, Lord Somerset made him his personal physician. Dr. Barry proved his skill quickly. When one of Lord Somerset’s daughters seemed certain to die, Dr. Barry saved her life. That made him a favorite of the wealthy and powerful families of the Cape. Dr. Barry was also a favorite with women, but he never married. Some described him as being “every inch a gentleman.” Many found him kind and caring. But others thought he was vain and disagreeable. At the age of 23, Dr. Barry was appointed colonial medical inspector. That job gave him a great deal of power. He made more friends—and enemies. For one thing, he angered army doctors by speaking out against the filthy conditions in military hospitals. Dr. Barry complained about poor conditions in leper colonies and insane asylums. He also worked to improve the lives of poor, black Africans. The wealthy white people of the Cape resented this. Some of his ideas about health were very modern. He realized that crowded living conditions, poor diet, and poor sanitation made people sick. At the time, most people simply didn’t think this way. Finally, Dr. Barry’s enemies got him removed from his job. So he left the Cape to work in other countries. When the Crimean War broke out in 1853, he was living in Greece. He was refused permission to work at the front. So he asked that wounded soldiers be sent to his hospital in Greece. After several months, soldiers began arriving at Dr. Barry’s hospital. War wounds were only part of their suffering. Starvation, cholera, dysentery. fever, and frostbite were common conditions. But Dr. Barry was somehow able to save most of them. Of the 462 men who came to his hospital, only 17 died. When it came time for Dr. Barry to go on vacation, he went to Crimea instead. There he met the famous nurse, Florence Nightingale. Barry and Nightingale shared many of the same beliefs. They both thought that good food, good hygiene, and fresh air helped people stay healthy. Both did all they could to help the ordinary soldier. And both were impatient with medical officials’ stubborn reluctance to change. As Florence Nightingale put it, they were mostly interested in keeping themselves “out of the blame.” In 1859, Barry returned to Britain. At age 60, he retired, and six years later, he died. His death was written up in Charles Dickens’ magazine All Year Around. Dr. Barry had said that when he died, he wanted to be buried in the clothes he had on. The death certificate was issued. A woman laid out the body—and only then was the doctor’s secret discovered. Doctor Barry was a woman. How could anyone have guessed that Dr. Barry was a female? Certainly, he was a small, delicate-looking man. But in those days, there were no woman doctors. In fact, it was believed that women weren’t even capable of being doctors! So no one thought to question Dr. Barry. She was able to live a lie for many, many years


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