How gender barriers blighted the career of a Kiwi psychiatry pioneer

by Robert Kaplan / 19 September, 2018
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A drawing of Barkas in 1924.

Mary Barkas' significant achievements in psychiatry in the early 20th century made little difference to her career prospects.

The history of psychiatry is more unwritten than written, and this applies especially to Australasia. One way to cast light on the darkness is to examine the lives of forgotten pathfinders. Mary Barkas is one of them.

A child prodigy born in Christchurch in 1889, she studied science at Victoria University College in Wellington, then escaped the crimped life for women in colonial New Zealand to study medicine in London.

She began at King’s College London, then, at the outbreak of World War I, studied at St Mary’s Hospital and the London School of Medicine for Women. She soared into psychiatry, winning every award and medal around, including the prestigious Gaskell Medal.

These achievements made little difference to her career; positions for women were routinely blocked and only allowed on a temporary basis. Barkas surged on, nevertheless. She was the first woman doctor in the 600-year history of the venerable Bethlem Hospital in London. Her next step was to go to Vienna, where she was analysed by Otto Rank and mixed with Sigmund Freud and the early analysts.

Her break came in 1924, when she was one of the first four medical officers – and only woman – appointed at the opening of London’s Maudsley Hospital. She easily held her own, writing papers on topics such as schizophrenia and encephalitis lethargica, playing a part in early child psychiatry and being the first analyst at the hospital.

Frustrated at not being able to get a permanent position, she left in 1927. Probably depressed, she became medical superintendent of The Lawn, a private hospital in Lincoln. This ended in failure when the hospital went bankrupt and she returned to New Zealand in 1933, retreating to remote Tapu, on the Coromandel Peninsula.

Mary Barkas as a toddler with her parents and nanny. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Mary Barkas as a toddler with her parents and nanny. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Barkas never practised again and there are reports that she was disillusioned with psychiatry and psychoanalysis. She gave lectures at the Workers’ Educational Association and went on a trip to Europe in 1938, then disappeared from social and professional life, dying in isolation in 1959. Before she disappeared from the record, she was friendly with the poet RAK Mason.

We know of her activities in the UK through the correspondence with her father, Fred, often written on a daily basis and providing a detailed account of her life. This came to an end in 1932 when Fred died.

There are many questions but there is also much to be learnt from Barkas’ life and career. She overcame the limitations on women in colonial New Zealand and made a long voyage to place herself in the centre of psychiatric and psychoanalytic developments in the 1920s. This was a tribute to her intelligence, ability and versatility. Despite the barriers against her gender in psychiatry, her work was significant and, in what she accomplished, she can be regarded as a pioneer. Why her later life took the course it did remains to be explained, but would shed light on why her achievements are so neglected. Barkas is too important to be forgotten. 

Robert M Kaplan is a forensic psychiatrist at the Graduate School of Medicine, University of Wollongong. His latest book is The King Who Strangled His Psychiatrist and Other Dark Tales.

This article was first published in the September 22, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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