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She's a beauty... and just perfect to play the role of the most amazing MALE doc ever; EXCLUSIVE HEARTACHE BEHIND NATASCHA'S SMILE.

Byline: By STEPHEN MAGUIRE

THE amazing story of an Irishwoman who pretended to be a man to become the world's first female surgeon is to be made into a blockbuster film.

And in a remarkable twist of fate, tragic actress Natascha McElhone is to star in the movie.

Natascha, 36, is still grieving after her own surgeon husband Martin Kelly died suddenly of a heart attack in May when she was five months pregnant.

She is due to give birth next month and has vowed to shoot the film in the New Year as a tribute to her late husband with whom she prepared for the role.

The film, Heaven and Earth, tells the bizarre story of James Miranda Barry, a pioneering surgeon who carried out the first Caesarean section in Britain, saving both mother and baby.

Dr Barry, who was born Margaret Ann Bulkley in Cork, 1792, was the daughter of a grocer. She was forced to lie about her sex because women were not allowed to practise medicine.

Disguised as a boy she enrolled at the age of 13 at Edinburgh University, graduating as a doctor at 19 before becoming a top surgeon.

She joined the British Army and served in India and Cape Town and by the end of her career, had risen to the rank of inspector general in charge of military hospitals.

She spent a lifetime serving as a surgeon and her secret was not discovered until she died aged 70.

The charwoman who laid out the body, Sophia Bishop, exclaimed it was the corpse of "a perfect female", with stretch marks proving she had given birth.

Dr Barry had managed to keep her secret all her life and had even managed to give birth to a child with South African Governer Lord Charles Somerset.

She once fell seriously ill aged just 46 and gave orders that if she died her body was to be wrapped in sheets and not examined.

She successfully fooled Victorian society into thinking she was a man throughout her extraordinary life but the mystery over her gender was only solved earlier this year in a series of letters uncovered by New Scientist magazine.

Historians were always unsure over claims Dr James Barry, Inspector General of Military Hospitals, was in fact a woman for more than 140 years.

But the previously unknown letters proved the diminutive physician who fought for better conditions for troops, shot a man in a duel and reached the top of "his" profession began life as the daughter of a grocer from Cork.

The scandal that shook the Victorian military establishment began when Dr Barry fell victim to the dysentery epidemic that swept London in the summer of 1865.

Only after Dr Barry's remains lay in Kensal Green Cemetery did Sophia Bishop, a maid at his lodgings who prepared the body for burial, make the startling claim he was in fact a she.

If Bishop was telling the truth, a woman had posed as a man to become the first female medical graduate in Britain, fooled the army into employing her and then kept her sex secret for half a century.

Appalled by the idea, army officials locked away Dr Barry's service records for almost 100 years and hoped the story would go away.

With only the maid's word to go on and no post-mortem, the story caused endless speculation, with some contemporaries claiming to have known all along, and others arguing Dr Barry was a hermaphrodite.

In the 1950s historian Isobel Rae gained access to army records and concluded Dr Barry was a niece of James Barry, the celebrated Irish artist and professor of painting at London's Royal Academy.

However, with no proof the debate has refused to go away.

South African urologist Dr Michael du Preez first heard the story as a boy in Cape Town, where Dr Barry had introduced sweeping health reforms while he was an assistant surgeon to the garrison there.

Dr Barry had fought for better food, sanitation and proper medical care for prisoners and lepers, as well as soldiers and their families, as well as becoming the first British surgeon to perform a successful Caesarean section in 1826.

He also earned notoriety for his outspoken views which provoked a duel with pistols, and for his intimate relationship with the Governor, Lord Charles Somerset, which resulted in a libel action after the pair were accused of homosexuality.

When Dr du Preez retired in 2001, he set about gathering evidence to solve the mystery of Dr Barry once and for all.

Hidden in a large collection of papers relating to James Barry he discovered documents that leave no doubt that Dr Barry began life in Ireland as Margaret Ann Bulkley, daughter of Jeremiah and Mary-Ann, sister of the famous Irish artist.

They reveal a conspiracy between Margaret's mother and some of her uncle's influential, liberalminded friends to get her through medical school.

Key evidence came from around two dozen letters, some written by Margaret as a teenager and others by Barry the student doctor.

Alison Reboul, a document analysis expert with the Forensic Science Service, has concluded they were written by the same person.

Another newly-discovered letter was written by Barry to the family solicitor Daniel Reardon on "his" arrival in Edinburgh to study medicine in 1809.

Although the letter was signed "James Barry", Reardon had written on the outside 'Miss Bulkley, 14th December'.

Du Preez said: "Reardon was a meticulous man. On the outside of all the letters he received he wrote the date and the name of the sender. You can't get much more conclusive than that."

The stranger-than-life true story will begin filming in December it is believed Natascha, 36, best known for movies including The Devil's Own and The Truman Show, had already spoken to husband and renowned plastic surgeon Martin Kelly about the role.

But in May, Natascha's world was thrown upside down when Kelly, aged just 43, was found slumped in the hallway of the couple's home having died from heart complications.

Natascha regularly visits Ireland where her mother Noreen Taylor and step-father Roy Greenslade live in Ramelton, Co Donegal.

McElhone told friends she was determined to fulfil her obligations and would play Dr Barry as a tribute to her late husband.

The actress said she is looking forward to playing the role of such a strong woman who put her career before everything including her sexuality.

Natascha said: "Barry defied every convention of her time. She disguised herself as a man to attend medical school, then excelled in an entirely male world, achieving the highest position possible for a military surgeon.

"She was a fearless pioneer, pushing the frontiers of accepted medical practice to find new and effective ways of treating her patients, always putting her own safety and popularity at risk."

Natascha recalled the moment her world fell to pieces when she got the phonecall about her husband's death while filming in Los Angelus.

"I knew I was going to have to tell the kids.

"I thought of trying to suspend time or wait and not tell them for a day - but I couldn't bear the idea of other people knowing and them not.

"I remember looking out of the window and seeing them chasing after each other with huge squeals of delight and thinking, 'I'm about to shatter their world.

"They came in and they were like little boys are, full of energy and excitement, and I told them what had happened. And then the clouds descended. It was awful.'

However Natascha remains optimistic about the future and she said the couple's sons, eight-year-old Theo-dore and Otis, five, keep her going.

She said: "Martin is really, really present, which I'm surprised by and delighted by.

"I've never been one to believe in spirits, but I feel we're all suffused with him in different ways and that will live on, in me, in the kids, in this new little one that's just coming along."

One of the film's producers, Focus Film's David Pupkewitz, said: "It is great to bring together this actress with this story and this director, Marleen Gorris, the first woman to win an Academy Award for directing, with Antonia's Line."

CAPTION(S):

Real life.. Dr James Barry; In his honour.. Natascha with her husband, surgeon Martin Kelly
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Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Sep 28, 2008
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