O'Meara, Barry Edward (1786?–1836), surgeon and physician to Napoleon on St Helena, was born in Ireland, son of Jeremiah O'Meara, solicitor, and his wife, the sister of Edmund Murphy, MA, of TCD. Various sources give his year of birth as 1770, 1778, or 1786, but it is now thought that the last date is the most likely. Some sources also state that he was educated at TCD and at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. There are no records, however, of his attending either of these colleges and it is more likely that he received his medical training at one of the numerous private medical schools that were established in Dublin at the end of the eighteenth century. In February 1804 he was appointed as an assistant surgeon with the 62nd Foot, subsequently serving in Italy and during the Egyptian campaign of 1807. In 1807 he acted as second in a duel at Messina in Sicily, and his commanding officer, who was determined to suppress the practice of duelling, had him court-martialled. He was dismissed the service in 1808 but entered the RN as an assistant surgeon, initially serving on HMS Victorious in 1810.
He later served aboard HMS Estpièle and HMS Goliath and was promoted to full surgeon. In July 1815 he was serving aboard HMS Bellorophon when Napoleon surrendered on board to Capt. Frederick Lewis Maitland (14 July), and during the voyage to Plymouth O'Meara had conversations with the emperor. Napoleon, it appears, was impressed with his medical abilities and fluent French and Italian, and asked that O'Meara be allowed to accompany him into exile in St Helena when his own physician refused to do so. O'Meara was duly appointed as Napoleon's confidential physician in St Helena and was given quarters in his house at Longwood. He acted not only as physician but as confidant to Napoleon. As he had freedom to move about the island, he supplied Napoleon with gossip from the town and the garrison. O'Meara was, however, also spying on Napoleon for the admiralty, sending confidential reports to John Finlaison, keeper of admiralty records. During the period in which he served as Napoleon's physician, he treated him for insomnia, swelling of the legs, and pain in the liver.
O'Meara had a difficult relationship with the island's governor, Sir Hudson Lowe (1769–1844), who realised from as early as October 1816 that O'Meara was spying not only on Napoleon but on everyone else on the island. When the relationship between Lowe and Napoleon deteriorated, O'Meara initially served as an intermediary between the two men. O'Meara later refused to supply Lowe with information, however, and when Lowe ordered him to stop sending reports to the admiralty, he offered his resignation. Since by this time he was the only physician that Napoleon would accept, he was allowed to remain but continued to have a stormy relationship with Lowe, and was placed under house arrest on one occasion (April 1818). After a series of confrontations, he resigned from his post (July 1818); Lowe ordered him off the island, and he returned to England. Napoleon made him a gift of a snuffbox, a statuette, and a promissory note for 100,000 francs on his departure. He was succeeded by another Irish surgeon, Dr James Roche Verling (qv); five Irish surgeons attended the emperor during his exile on St Helena.
On 28 October 1818 O'Meara wrote a letter to the lords of the admiralty in which he suggested that Lowe might try to assassinate Napoleon. As a result of this letter he was dismissed from the RN on 2 November 1818, obtaining the dubious distinction of being dismissed from both services within a space of ten years. After his dismissal he defended his behaviour in the Morning Chronicle and then began a pamphlet war against Lowe, publishing An exposition of some of the transactions that have taken place at St Helena since the appointment of Hudson Lowe as governor (London, 1819). This work was enlarged and published as Napoleon in exile: or a voice from St Helena (2 vols, London, 1822). It was extremely popular and soon ran through five editions, being published in translation in France. It was also subjected to unfavourable reviews, however, and in the Quarterly Review John Wilson Croker (qv) detected several inconsistencies between O'Meara's two accounts. Yet, while his writings were undoubtedly partisan, they remain of interest as a sympathetic record of the conversations and living conditions of Napoleon during his time on St Helena. O'Meara's writings have proved popular among those trying to find evidence that Napoleon was assassinated, and been used to support various conspiracy theories. After the publication of Napoleon in exile in 1822, Sir Hudson Lowe began libel proceedings against O'Meara, but these were later dropped due to legal technicalities. Lord Byron later referred to O'Meara in his pro-Bonapartist poem ‘The age of bronze’: ‘The staff surgeon who maintained his cause / Hath lost his place but gained the world's applause.’
In civilian life O'Meara became involved in politics, supporting the cause of Queen Caroline during her divorce case, and he was later an associate of Daniel O'Connell (qv). After his dismissal from the service, he went into private practice in London and was a founding member of the Reform Club. On 3 June 1836 he died at his London residence on the Edgware Road, reportedly due to erysipelas in the head, caught at one of O'Connell's meetings. He was buried in St Mary's church, Paddington. An auction of his effects (18–19 July) included some items relating to Napoleon, which sold for large amounts.
He was married twice, but details of his first marriage are not known. In February 1823 he married his second wife, Theodosia Beauchamp (d. 1830), daughter of Sir Edward Boughton of Lawford and his second wife, Anna Maria Beauchamp. His new wife brought a considerable fortune to the marriage as she was the widow of Capt. John Donellan (d. 1781) and Sir Egerton Leigh (d. 1818). This was fortunate, as O'Meara was then in straitened circumstances owing to his legal case against Lowe.
His granddaughter was the biographer and novelist Kathleen O'Meara (qv). There is a large collection of his papers, including letters and reports on Napoleon's health, in the BL, which has additional O'Meara letters in the Lowe collection.