James Barlow (1767-1839) was born in 1767 at Hawkshaw, Lancashire, the son of Catherine Taylor and William Barlow. He is believed to have begun his training in Manchester before possibly heading to St Bartholomew's Hospital, London to complete it. Although there is no definitive evidence to say where Barlow completed his medical studies the dedications made in his alter published works to teachers at the hospital suggest close links with St Bartholomew's. However, the existence of a manuscript (MMM/15/1/1) of notes from the lectures of Henry Cline from 1788 in Barlow's hand suggest he may also have attended lectures at St Thomas's Hospital, London.
He practised first in Chorley, Lancashire before moving the few miles to Blackburn in 1797 following the breakdown of his very short-lived marriage to Elizabeth Winstanley, the sister-in-law of John Hull. Barlow ran a large and successful practice in Blackburn, and as it grew built his own premises, known as Spring Mount.
Barlow is most famous for performing the first recorded successful caesarean in the UK in which the mother survived. In 1793 the Wigan based surgeon, Mr Hawarden, called Barlow to assist with a difficult birth at Blackrod, near Bolton. The patient in question was one Jane Foster and the day after Barlow first examined her she agreed to the caesarean section which he believed to be the only viable option and he was assisted by a female attendant. He reported on the case in detail in 1798 in Medical Records and Researches and published it again in 1822 in his own book Essays on Surgery and Midwifery: With Practical Observations and Select Cases. Although the child did not survive, Foster lived until the age of 75 and died in October 1829. Another notable aspect of the case was Barlow's decision to suture the uterus after the operation, a process not usually undertaken. The case was quoted by both parties in the early 19th century argument between John Hull and William Simmons regarding the caesarean operation.
In addition to the caesarean operation Barlow was known for his advocacy of the use of callipers in pelvimetry. His publications offer descriptions of pelvic deformity and the subsequent methods of delivery. Barlow also wrote extensively on lithotomy and urinary calculi and designed and described a version of the sound, the instrument used to perform the lithotomy procedure. As well as his 1822 work in 1839 Barlow published An Address to Medical and Surgical Pupils on the Studies and Duties of their Profession.
After his failed marriage to Elizabeth Winstanley, Barlow never remarried. He did, however, adopt a son in 1812, James Barlow Stewardson Sturdy, who went on to become Mayor of Blackburn. Barlow died on 20 August 1839 at his home in Blackburn.