Oswego, NY

American Surgeon and Medal of Honor Recipient Dr. Mary Edwards Walker (1832 - 1919)

Matt Reicher

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Dr. Mary Edwards WalkerBain News Service / Public Domain

“Dr. Mary’s life should stand out to remind us that when people do not think as we do, do not dress as we do, and do not live as we do, that they are more than likely to be a half century ahead of their time, and that we should have for them not ridicule but reverence.” ~ Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen (founder of the American Medical Women’s Association)

Raised to be a freethinker, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker lived life on her terms. She rebelled against societal norms early on, famously rejecting women’s clothing styles for more comfortable men’s attire. At twenty-three, Dr. Walker graduated from medical school. She later served with the North in the Civil War.

She was the first female surgeon in U.S. Army history. Her bravery during the war earned her the nation’s highest military honor. After the war, she became a physician, author, and lecturer supporting women’s suffrage and dress reform.

Dr. Walker, the fifth daughter of Alvah Walker and Vesta Whitcomb, was born November 26, 1832, in Oswego, New York. They lived on a thirty-five-acre farm christened “Bunker Hill.” The Walker home was modestly furnished, but dominated by books. Education was of clear-cut importance, so the family built a school on their property. Walker’s parents encouraged curiosity and pushed their children to determine their paths.

Her interest in dress reform began in the 1840s. Both parents dealt with illness in their lives and read medical books to learn about the human body. Her father became an adamant believer in the benefits of personal hygiene and felt tight clothing harmed female health. This realization and strict adherence to alcohol and tobacco temperance informed Walker’s childhood and deepened her convictions as she got older.

In December 1853, she was accepted into Syracuse Medical College—one of a few U.S. medical schools that admitted women. She excelled in her course work and graduated with a medical doctorate on February 20, 1855. She was the only woman in her graduating class.

Walker married former classmate Dr. Albert Miller on November 16, 1855. Ever the non-conformist, she refused to change her last name and omitted the word ‘obey’ from her vows. Instead of a wedding dress, she wore trousers underneath a short skirt.

The husband and wife team set up a joint practice in Rome, New York. However, people didn’t trust female physicians, and the business faltered.

In the 1850s, Dr. Walker became the first American woman to perform general surgery.

Because of her husband’s serial infidelity, the New York State Supreme Court granted Walker a divorce on September 16, 1861. Her husband prolonged the process in court to hold on to rights he stood to lose after the divorce. Because of Albert’s legal wrangling, the divorce wasn’t finalized until January 2, 1869.

Dr. Walker never remarried.

Dress Reform

Dr. Walker didn’t feel women’s clothes allowed for freedom of movement and circulation the same way men’s clothing did. She believed they were expensive, unsafe, unhealthy, and unsanitary and refused to wear them.

Studies had shown her the adverse effects of women’s clothing, and if society hadn’t drawn the same conclusion, society was wrong. Dr. Walker believed there was a level of control involved. Men controlled women’s dress because, in their minds, giving women the independence of attire allowed them the freedom of thought.

There were also monetary ramifications. Dr. Walker couldn’t see women doing the same work as men—for the same money—if their clothing continued to burden them.

Reforming women’s dress was a vital component of their emancipation.

In her younger years, she wore a skirt over a pair of men’s pants. Dr. Walker believed that regardless of the skirt length, someone always voiced their negative opinion. Her attire caused her almost universal scorn. More than once, she was chased away by an unruly crowd for wearing pants instead of a dress. She was arrested several times for dressing like a man.

Despite the harassment, Dr. Walker refused to change her wardrobe for her detractors. Instead, she celebrated the benefits of the less expensive, more comfortable, and easier-to-wear men’s clothes. She also appreciated the utility of deep pockets.

Dr. Walker was acutely aware of the political statement she was making and frustrated by the more conservative suffragists who elected to wear more traditionally acceptable clothing in public. She felt, especially later in her life, that those women were more concerned about getting ‘unnecessary amendments’ passed than focusing on things that mattered.

The Civil War

Dr. Walker tried to serve in the Army as a commissioned medical officer in 1861. Because she was a woman, they refused her. Wanting to offer her services, she volunteered as an assistant surgeon at Washington D.C.’s U.S. Patent Office Hospital. A year later, Dr. Walker was an unpaid field surgeon working near the front lines at Fredericksburg and Chattanooga. She wore men’s clothing to make her job more manageable.

In September 1863, Dr. Walker became the first female U.S. Army surgeon in history after her commission as a “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)” by the Army of the Cumberland. While serving as an assistant surgeon with the 52nd Ohio Infantry, she often crossed enemy lines to treat civilians in need. On April 10, 1864, Confederate troops arrested her and accused her of being a spy. Dr. Walker claimed she was merely delivering letters.

They took her to Castle Thunder Prison in Richmond, Virginia, and placed her in the female ward. Conditions were awful. The prison was dirty and rat-infested; the food had maggots, and water was only given to prisoners at the guards’ discretion. Dr. Walker was also criticized in the Confederate press, giddy that the Confederacy had captured a ‘female Yankee surgeon.’ They ridiculed her male-like attire and her North-friendly views. She was weakened by her awful conditions but never beaten

On August 12, 1864, she was part of a prisoner exchange. Both northern and southern armies desperately needed surgeons, so Dr. Walker and two dozen Union doctors were exchanged for seventeen Confederate surgeons.

They reported her release throughout the country.

In October 1864, Dr. Walker was again commissioned as an acting assistant surgeon. For the rest of the war, she served at the Louisville Women’s Prison Hospital and an orphan asylum in Clarksville, Tennessee.

She was discharged on June 15, 1865. After leaving the Army, she continued to be harassed — even arrested — for her clothes.

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Civil War Photograph of Dr. Mary Edwards WalkerMatthew Brady

Medal of Honor

On November 11, 1865, based on recommendations from Major Generals Sherman and Thomas, President Andrew Johnson signed a bill presenting Dr. Walker with the Medal of Honor. This made her the first woman to receive the award.

The Army was unwilling to offer her a major’s commission and effectively ended her contract. Those involved felt the medal would be a suitable second option. Dr. Walker proudly wore it everywhere she went.

In 1910, the Army reviewed the Medal of Honor recipients and amended the qualifications for the award. This removed Dr. Walker and nine hundred-and-eleven male recipients. Most were from the 27th Maine Infantry, who, in June 1863, received Medals of Honor for re-enlisting.

Dr. Walker was asked to return the medal but refused. She proudly wore it for the rest of her life.

Capitalizing on her celebrity, Dr. Walker toured the United States and Europe as an author and lecturer after the war. She discussed women’s rights, dress reform, and health issues. In 1866, she was elected president of the National Dress Reform Association and helped Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone organize the Women’s Suffrage Association of Ohio.

On February 22, 1919, Dr. Walker passed away at Bunker Hill. She was buried in a black suit in her family plot.

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker lived her life believing she could accomplish anything she set out to do. Unwilling to kowtow to the word ‘no’ despite the formidable challenges associated with her gender and humble upbringing, she became a surgeon, suffragist, author, abolitionist, reformer, and advocate for women’s rights.

Sources

  • “About Dr. Mary Walker.” Independence: The True Story of Dr. Mary Walker. https://independencedrmarywalker.com/about-dr-mary-walker/.
  • “Dr. Mary Edwards Walker (U.S. National Park Service).” NPS.gov (U.S. National Park Service). Last modified April 29, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/people/mary-walker.htm.
  • Harris, Sharon M. Dr. Mary Walker: An American Radical, 1832–1919. Chicago: Rutgers University Press, 2009.
  • “Mary Walker is the Only Woman to Ever Earn a Medal of Honor.” Timesfreepress.com. Last modified February 22, 2020. https://www.timesfreepress.com/news/special-projects/story/2020/feb/22/mary-walker-only-womever-earn-medal-honor/516339/.
  • “Mary Walker Part II — The Legacy Center.” Drexel University, College of Medicine, Archives & Special Collections:. https://archives.drexelmed.edu/blog/?p=333.
  • “Meet Dr. Mary Edwards “Walker”.” Whitman-Walker Health. https://www.whitman-walker.org/blogs-and-stories/meet-dr-mary-edwards-walker.
  • “Meet Dr. Mary Walker: The Only Female Medal of Honor Recipient.” https://www.army.mil/article/183800/meet_dr_mary_walker_the_only_female_medal_of_honor_recipient.
  • The Norfolk post. November 25, 1865, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85038624/1865-11-25/ed-1/seq-1/#date1=1865&index=11&rows=20&words=honor+medal&searchType=basic&sequence=0&state=&date2=1865&proxtext=medal+of+honor&y=16&x=19&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=

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