Stuart, Miranda (c. 1795–1865)
Stuart, Miranda (c. 1795–1865)
British doctor who posed as a man throughout her career and served in the military in South Africa, the West Indies, Canada, and the Crimea. Name variations: James Barry; Miranda Stuart Barry. Born Miranda Stuart or Miranda Stuart Barry around 1795; died around the age of 70 of dysentery in London on July 25, 1865; Edinburgh College, M.D., 1812.
Miranda Stuart's early life is shrouded in mystery, but it seems she was born in 1795 into an Irish Catholic family. She was apparently the granddaughter of Cork-based shipbuilder John Barry, and her father may have been his son James Barry, a painter. Born in an era when women were traditionally denied any profession outside the home, Stuart, posing as a man named James Barry, became the first female doctor in the United Kingdom and had a distinguished medical career in the British military. She passed herself off as a young orphaned boy to get into Edinburgh College in 1810. Diminutive in stature, she was a young woman of 15 at the time, but claimed to be only 10 in order to mask her feminine features under the cloak of pre-adolescent boyhood. Although 10 was considered an unusually young age for such studies, there were no age requirements for entrance. Stuart protected her identity during the course of her two-year college career by keeping to herself, and prepared her thesis on the hernia of the groin. After qualifying as a doctor in 1812, she studied surgery in London.
Stuart joined the army the following year, and took her first assignment as a military hospital assistant in Plymouth. No longer able to use extreme youth as an excuse for her less-than-masculine appearance, Stuart caused some comment with her beardless face, high-pitched voice and petite features, although her remarkable medical skills and the favor of British au thorities deflected any criticism regarding her appearance. After achieving the level of assistant-surgeon, she was transferred to a garrison in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1816. She cut a colorful figure in Cape Town, wearing a plumed hat and carrying a sword, always accompanied by a servant and a dog named Psyche (all of her subsequent dogs were named Psyche). Stuart was considered to be the best physician in Cape Town, and although her manner was considered eccentric, she was respected and often lauded by her peers and patients.
In 1822, Stuart was promoted to the civil post of medical inspector for Cape Colony and director of the Vaccine Board, although she retained some of her military responsibilities. She fought diligently on behalf of prisoners' health and improved prison conditions, and lobbied to have lepers perceived as "unfortunates" rather than as criminals. Perhaps to compensate for her effeminate appearance, Stuart also had a violent temper and frequent clashes with colleagues made her 13-year stay in Cape Town a volatile one. Even so, rumors circulated about Stuart possibly being a woman. One of her patients, Captain W.H. Dillon, wrote of Stuart in 1856, "Many surmises were in circulation relating to him. From the awkwardness of his gait and the shape of his person it was the prevailing opinion that he was a female." Another visitor to Cape Town, Lord Albemarle, commented on Stuart, "There was a certain effeminacy in his manner which he seemed to be always striving to overcome."
Stuart resigned from her civil post shortly before 1825 due to political changes and numerous political rows, but was urgently summoned in 1826 to attend to Mrs. Thomas Munnik, who was dying in childbirth. With characteristic decision, Stuart immediately performed a Caesarian section without the benefit of any sort of anaesthetic. Both the mother and child survived, and Stuart received credit for performing the first successful Caesarian in South Africa, and the second in the Western world. At her request, the baby boy became her godson, James Barry Munnik. Among the boy's descendants was South African Prime Minster James Barry Munnik Hertzog.
Her next post as assistant-surgeon in Mauritius, beginning in October 1829, proved to be no smoother than her tenure in Cape Town, and the rumors about her gender followed her. She found herself at odds with the governor, Sir Charles Colville, and took leave from Mauritius that same year to nurse a friend through a grave illness in London. She stayed there until the friend's death in 1831, and received a new post in Jamaica that same year. Jamaica had earned the nickname "White Man's Grave" because of the constant threat of yellow fever and other diseases, but Stuart's strict vegetarian diet and sanitary habits with regard to food preparation helped her escape illness. She stayed in Jamaica for four long, trying years, during which the constant presence of disease kept her busy. She next set out for St. Helena on April 18, 1836, and worked as principal medical officer on the island. In St. Helena, she introduced the concept of female nursing, as many of the women on the island were so impoverished that they turned to prostitution. In 1838, she was demoted for reasons that were repressed, sparking speculation that her gender may have been at issue, and was appointed staff-surgeon to the Windward and Leeward Islands in November of that year.
Stuart spent six years in the Windward and Leeward Islands, which also had a well-earned reputation for death. There, her hearty immune system finally broke down, and she contracted yellow fever in Trinidad in 1844. She survived and, in 1846, took up the position of principal medical officer in Malta, where efficiency and dedication earned her the highest regards possible. She was promoted to the rank of deputy inspector-general of hospitals, and soon relocated to Corfu. From April to June in 1855, she took a leave to Crimea, where she publicly berated Florence Nightingale .
Stuart's next and last post as inspector-general was in Canada, where the climate and terrain were difficult for someone accustomed to the tropics. She campaigned for separate married quarters in the barracks, roasted meat instead of boiled, and feather or hair mattresses instead of hard straw mattresses. After relentless attacks of bronchitis, she was sent home on sick leave in May 1859. Miranda Stuart lived for six more years, and died of dysentery on July 25, 1865. After her death, it was confirmed that she had been a woman, and that she had possibly given birth at least once as well.
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Longford, Elizabeth. Eminent Victorian Women. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1981.
Uglow, Jennifer S., comp. and ed. The International Dictionary of Women's Biography. NY: Continuum, 1982.