April is International Cesarean Awareness month. To mark it, we tell the story of the first successful c-section in South Africa which is one worth a movie script.
On 26 July 1826, Dr James Barry performed what has been recorded as the first successful caesarean section (c-section) in Africa. Dr Barry was born in Ireland, studied in London and moved to Cape Town in the early 1800s. He was a well-renowned surgeon and later became the Medical Inspector for the British Army.
What the British army did not know was that Dr James Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley; a woman disguised as a man.
James Barry was the name of Margaret’s deceased uncle. When the opportunity for her to study and practise as a female surgeon became non-existent, she disguised as a man. She took on the disguise when she was 20 years old and got admitted to Edinburgh University to study medicine.
Dr James Barry performed numerous successful surgeries, and no one knew she was a woman until she died in 1865. According to the South African Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, she concealed her sex for 56 years!
The c-section story
In July 1862, Thomas Munik and his wife were being advised by the church to not opt for a c-section for the birth of their child. Going against the church’s advice, Munnik’s son was successfully born via c-section on 26 July 1826.
The Munniks named their son after Dr James Barry, and he lived for 78 years. James Barry Munnik then named his godson after the military surgeon as well.
His godson James Barry Munnik Hertzog was a politician and served as the third prime minister of the Union of South Africa from 1924 to 1939. He was born in 1866.
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During that time, a successful c-section was one where both the mother and child survive one month after the operation. Before the first successful c-section was recorded in the Netherlands in 1792, the maternal mortality rate was almost 100% for abdominal births. This was due to infection and bleeding.
Dr James Barry’s story has become a legendary one, researched and told by researchers and doctors globally.
A maid where Dr Barry lived, Sophia Bishop, discovered during preparations for her burial that Dr Barry was a woman.
Today, c-sections account for one in five global births, with South African rates being one of the highest in the world.