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18 September 2014
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Women at War: 'She-Soldiers' Through the Ages

By Peter Craddick-Adams
Female doctors

Image of Dr James Barry
Dr James Barry - female military medic ©
It was possible, even in the 19th century, for women to slip through the net into the male world of the army. There is the remarkable case of Dr James Barry (1795-1865), who qualified at the Royal College of Surgeons (open only to men) in January 1813 as a regimental surgeon.

Little is known of her origins or of her female name, if she ever had one, but the little, five-foot doctor pursued a career in the army medical service via postings in South Africa, Mauritius, the West Indies, Malta (where she earned the Duke of Wellington’s praise), the Crimea and Canada.

'As a doctor, she was able to maintain the privacy she required to serve in an all-male environment.'

She fought a duel and eventually became senior inspector-general of hospitals, with the status of a major-general. Her gender - and the fact that she had at some stage born a child - was only uncovered on her deathbed.

What attracted her to army life? Perhaps in this case it was the desire to prove herself professionally, in a career that was denied to women at that time. As a doctor, she was able to maintain the privacy she required to serve in an all-male environment.

Another medical woman, Mrs Frances Bell, served in the Boer War of 1899-1902. She rescued some badly wounded men who were under fire, trapped in an ambushed convoy. As a reward for her bravery, she was presented to Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace and awarded a Victoria Cross, but the award was never gazetted, for women were not eligible to receive it.

Thus, many unofficial precedents had been set prior to the 20th century, which illustrate that women have always been at the front – if only you knew where to look for them.

Published: 2005-03-01

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