The mys­tery of Mary Barkas

Gen­der bar­ri­ers blighted the ca­reer of a New Zealand psy­chi­a­try pi­o­neer.

New Zealand Listener - - SUFFRAGE: 125 YEARS - by ROBERT KA­PLAN 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.

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.

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.

1. Mary Barkas as a tod­dler with her par­ents and nanny. 2. Sig­mund Freud. 3. Otto Rank. 4. Beth­lem Hos­pi­tal in Lon­don. 5. A draw­ing of Barkas in 1924. 1

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