The enigma of surgeon James Barry – and others - celebrated at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

A fascinating new gem from the archives of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) is on public display this week in a special exhibition marking the significant roles played by women within the organisation over its five-century span. And, having already revealed the written proof that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a former student, another notable signature has come to light in the form of James Barry.

Decades before the Sherlock Holmes creator studied at RBGE, a young Barry was educated at the Botanic Cottage, now rebuilt at the Inverleith site. Barry went on to become a brilliant, if bad tempered, British Army surgeon who would provoke fury in Florence Nightingale. Yet, James Barry held a deep secret that could have befitted any dramatic work. Only after Barry’s death was it revealed that “he” was female.

Born Margaret Ann Bulkley in Ireland, Barry had a distinguished career, serving in India and South Africa and reaching the rank of Inspector General in charge of military hospitals. Yet, the truth of birth behind the colourful adult life only started to emerge following a report by the woman who laid out Barry out after death in 1865.

In the early 19th century, when women were denied the opportunity to study medicine, graduating with a degree from the University of Edinburgh required students to have attended botany lectures. Barry opted to attend two courses at the Leith Walk Garden – RBGE’s third site - to hear the teachings of Regius Keeper Daniel Rutherford who, in common with all previous title holders, had trained in medicine.

There is evidence to suggest that Barry’s time at RBGE contributed to an ongoing interest in botany. In South Africa, Barry was able to see the rich flora in the area around the Cape and wrote a paper on Arctopus echinatus which – it was put forward – could be effective in the treatment of gonorrhoea or syphilis.

During 2017 funding from players of People’s Postcode Lottery will help fund new discoveries such as Barry in RBGE’s Living and Heritage collections and RBGE Archivist Leonie Paterson believes this new story is unlikely to be the last cultural gem to be uncovered: “Given the close association between RBGE and the study of medicine, it is reasonable to assume we will uncover more famous former students. This, in turn, adds new dimensions to our records as we approach the organisation’s 350th anniversary in 2020.”

The Main Reception Foyer of RBGE administration building, at 20A Inverleith Row, is showcasing items, including the signature of Barry, until Thursday, March 30. Modern-day contributors to the international research, conservation and education work of the organisation also include Paulina Maciejewska-Daruk, who has a Master’s degree from Warsaw University of Life Sciences and looks after the Montane and Lowland Tropics glasshouses, and Sabina Knees, who specialises in the flora and vegetation of the Arabian Peninsula and wider Middle East. The exhibition cis open seven days a week, 10:00 to 15:30 17:00 until the end of the month

 

To find out more online #BeBoldForChange, @TheBotanics, #IWD2017 and Botanic Stories

ENDS

For further information, images and interviews please call Shauna Hay on 0131 248 2900/07824 529 028 s.hay@rbge.org.uk or Charlotte McDonald on 0131 248 2925.

EDITOR’S NOTES

NOTES TO EDITORS

 

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The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) is a leading international research organisation delivering knowledge, education and plant conservation action in more than 50 countries around the world. In Scotland its four Gardens at Edinburgh, Benmore, Dawyck and Logan attract nearly a million visitors each year. It operates as a Non Departmental Public Body established under the National Heritage (Scotland) Act 1985, principally funded by the Scottish Government. It is also a registered charity, managed by a Board of Trustees appointed by Ministers. Its mission is “To explore, conserve and explain the world of plants for a better future”.  www.rbge.org.uk

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a charity (registration number SC007983)