THE SPARK BLOG

Doctor & Mrs. Barry: a tale of gender and equality

There is a well-known brain teaser that has become something of a gender and equality statement over time. It goes something like this…

“A man’s son is taken seriously ill at home. His father calls an ambulance and both are quickly transferred to hospital. The attending doctor takes one look at the boy and exclaims: I cannot treat this boy, he is my son. Why can’t the doctor treat the boy?”

If you haven’t cracked it yet the answer is that the doctor is the boy’s mother but as society has broadly conditioned us to perceive doctors as ‘male’ we initially cannot get our head round this teaser. It does however lead nicely in to a story about a famous (or infamous) doctor of the past – James Barry.

A bit of the backstory – stay with it…

Barry was born in 1789 (or 1792 or 1795) in Dublin (or Cork). There is a lot in his life that is ambiguous and uncertain but we do know the best bits. These are that he was ground-breaking in his profession, gloriously eccentric in his behaviour and his real name was Margaret.

Barry qualified as an MD aged 17 (or 16 or 15) from Edinburgh University. After training as a Surgeon he took a commission with the British Army.  Until his retirement in 1864 Barry’s career took him on a tour of the British Empire during which he proved himself a brilliant surgeon. In Cape Town, for example, he performed the first known successful Caesarean section. Perhaps more extraordinary, however, was his innovative and (at the time) controversial approach to his job as an army surgeon.

Revolutionising medicine

James Barry - a story of gender and equality

Dr. James Barry

Firstly, the emphasis he placed on what we now call public health was radical. In the Cape Colony he instigated smallpox vaccination a generation before this was introduced in England. And around 20 years before the Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis became a laughing stock for his attempts to promote hand washing in medical practice Barry was introducing and administrating systems of hygiene and clean water supplies in the British colonies.

Secondly, at a time when priority was given, as a matter of course, to the officer class, the focus of Barry’s attention was always those in most need. Generally this meant the ordinary soldiers and the indigenous populations of the colonies: groups which were treated with appalling inhumanity at the time. To some extent it was his refusal to favour the interests of the officers and the high ranking clergy that helped alienate him from the ruling classes.

Bad tempered man

Barry was also alienated by being monstrously difficult, bad tempered, vain and weird. He supplemented his five foot nothing frame with built-up shoes, dyed his hair a flaming red and dressed flamboyantly. He never went anywhere without a servant called John, a dog called Psyche and a goat called something or other. Famously gentle with his patients, he was notoriously antagonistic.

He is thought to have fought at least two ‘are-you-looking-at-my-girlfriend’ duels; and once, when a clergyman sent Barry a note asking him to treat his toothache, a local blacksmith turned up at the man’s house carrying a large set of pliers saying that Dr. Barry had told him there was a donkey that needed a tooth pulled.

What Dr Barry teaches us about gender and equality

Now, a little segue: A recent BBC report stated that around twice as many biological girls than boys were referred to the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust gender identity clinic last year. In the report, Dr Bernadette Wren says that, while there are many reasons why young people would require support from the clinic, given the statistics, ‘we do need to consider … whether there are any ways in which the social landscape shapes and influences how people feel about their role in life’. Dr Wren added, ‘It’s not really for us to approve or disapprove. What matters is what they make of their lives in the end and whether they lead rewarding lives’.

We’re certainly not there yet on gender and equality. Two hundred (or so) years after James Barry revolutionised medical practice all anyone seems to remember about him is that his real name was Margaret. I’d like to think she would be sad at this, but actually, I think she’d just go ape and try to shoot someone. She was a brilliant doctor, but a very, very rude man.


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Discuss counselling as an option for you, you and your partner or you and your family on freephone 0808 802 2088 or visit The Spark Counselling website for more information.

Children And Young People, Equality, Gender, Gender Identity, Young People