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Doctor Mary Barkas


Mary Barkas in 1922

Mary Rushton Barkas, born in 1889 in New Zealand, was the first female doctor employed at Bethlem Royal Hospital, and later became one of the first four medical assistants (in essence, senior doctors) at the Maudsley Hospital when it first opened to civilians. She became medical superintendent at the Lawn Hospital in Lincolnshire in 1927 until she moved back to New Zealand in 1932.

Born into a middle class family in Christchurch, Mary was regarded as something of a prodigy. Determined to be a doctor, she studied domestic (home) science at Victoria University College, Wellington, and an MSc at the University of New Zealand, then moved to England to study medicine at The London School of Medicine for Women in 1915, training at St Mary’s Hospital. Mary Barkas was not unique in following this path- the Royal Free Hospital had been training women since 1877- however her determination to specialise in mental health at the end of her course marked her out. Psychiatry at this point was some way behind general medicine in accepting women doctors, especially in the large county asylums that provided most of the jobs (and the care) in this area.

She was recruited to Bethlem as a Temporary Assistant Medical Officer on the recommendation of the Head Physician John Porter-Phillips in 1918, who appears to have encountered her when he lectured at her university. Porter-Phillips recruited her over the objections of the Governors of the Hospital, and the views of the wider psychiatric profession, all very much convinced that a woman could not work as a trained psychiatrist. Porter-Phillips expressly praised her work in his annual reports, and in 1919 she was elected a member of the Medico-Psychological Association- she would go on to win the MPA's Gaskell Medal in 1924. However the Board of Governors remained of the view that they would only recruit male permanent Assistant Medical Officers, and in the August 1919 Barkas resigned rather than being dismissed because of this.

Temporary work at other psychiatric institutions, including the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, and Hellsedon Hospital in Norwich, followed, and she trained in psychoanalysis and received personal therapy in Vienna in 1922 from Otto Rank, one of the leaders in the field and a close associate of Freud. In late 1922 she successfully interviewed for the position at the soon-to-be-opened Maudsley Hospital, becoming one of four psychiatrists working under Edward Mapother, the first Superintendent.

During her time at the Maudsley Dr Barkas was the only trained analyst on staff (Mapother was himself unconvinced of its efficacy), and had responsibility with William Dawson (Mapother’s third in command) for the female patients in the Hospital. She also researched and presented papers on organic disorders, and worked with Dawson at the Hospital’s child clinic. Mary Barkas would have been one of the most important, and recognisable, presences in the Hospital, and would have had a great deal of influence on the way the Hospital was run and the treatments it offered in those early years. However, in his dissertation on her life which draws on her correspondence with her father, Robert Kaplan has written that Mary felt great insecurity over her position as a woman in a medical post, and a fear that her employment could be cut short because of the general prejudice against female doctors in psychiatry.

Therefore in 1928 she decided to take up the position of Medical Superintendent at the Lawn Hospital in Lincoln, a private charitable institution outside of the ‘asylum system’ of hospitals. Unfortunately her job security there was matched by the institutional problems of underfunding and a lack of patients- problems that would only get worse in the Great Depression. Mary left in 1932, going back to New Zealand to nurse her ill father. It’s perhaps telling that the Governors of the Lawn Hospital tried to give her six months of compassionate leave rather than accept her resignation, possibly appreciating she had done all she could to keep the Hospital afloat.

Mary registered as a doctor in New Zealand, but never practiced. Kaplan suggests that the death of her father while she was travelling home was a huge blow to her, and she seems to have increasingly retreated to a life of relative obscurity in Tapu, on the Coromandel Peninsula. A pioneer for women doctors in psychiatry, she was all but forgotten in her lifetime, and died after a long illness in 1959.

References and Further Reading

This essay takes much of its content from Robert M Kaplan's 2018 dissertation 'Ascent Interrupted- The Psychiatric Career of Mary Barkas' which we have a copy of in the Museum. Kaplan has written a number of articles on Mary Barkas which are widely available online.

Claire Hilton's article on Women Psychiatrists 100 Years Ago on the Royal College of Physicians website gives some context to the growth of female doctors in psychiatry- https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/news...