|Mary Edwards Walker|
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker wearing her Medal of Honor
|Born||November 26 1832
Oswego, New York
|Died||February 21 1919 (aged 86)
|Employer||United States Army|
|Known for||Receiving the Medal of Honor during the American Civil War
1st Female U.S. Army Surgeon
Mary Edwards Walker (November 26, 1832 – February 21, 1919) was an American pioneer in the areas of feminism, abolitionism, prohibition and medicine. As one of the first female doctors in the United States she served in the American Civil War as a surgeon, became a prisoner of war and was the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor.
One of the first women in the country to be awarded a medical degree, she served as the first female surgeon in the U. S. Army while serving with the Fifty-second Ohio Infantry. She was cited for valor in going behind enemy lines to attend to the sick and wounded. She was a courageous opponent of what she considered rampant, unnecessary amputation during the Civil War.
Mary Walker was born in Oswego, New York, in 1832, the daughter of Alvah (father) and Vesta (mother) Walker. She was the youngest of five daughters and had one younger brother. Walker worked on her family farm which also served as a station on the Underground railroad.
Her father studied medicine as a hobby and had his own ideas about personal health. He believed most women's clothing of the early nineteenth-century was detrimental to their health and would not let his daughters wear corsets or other tight fitting clothes. These ideas of her father would be the basis of her strong belief that women’s dress needed to be reformed.
Her father's interest in medicine also caused Walker to dream of being a doctor as she read the many medical texts he owned.
Her elementary education consisted of going to the local school where her mother taught. As a young woman, she taught at the school to earn enough money to pay her way through Syracuse Medical College, where she graduated in 1855 as the only woman in her class. She married a fellow medical school student, Albert Miller, and they set up a joint practice in Rome, New York. The practice did not flourish, as female physicians were generally not trusted or respected at that time.
At the beginning of the American Civil War, she volunteered for the Union Army as a civilian.
Once she was in Washington Walker set out to obtain a position as a contract surgeon with the United States Army. She first applied to the Surgeon General at the time, Clement Finley, for a commission but he rejected her because of her gender and her eclectic medical training.
She volunteered anyway and went to work in the U.S. Patent Office Hospital in Washington. The Patent Office Hospital was also known as the Indiana Hospital because mostly Indiana troops were put there. Dr. J. N. Green accepted Walker out of necessity because his former assistant had died and he needed a replacement. He wrote a letter of recommendation for her to take to Surgeon General Finley in which he stated that he believed she was a qualified physician and requested she be given the position of Assistant Surgeon. Finley and Assistant Surgeon General R.C. Wood denied Walker's request.
Walker remained at the Indiana Hospital for two months during which time she gained the admiration of Dr. Green for her skill as a physician despite her gender, dress, and non-regular medical degree.
In 1862, Walker went to Forest Hall Prison in Georgetown, but felt her services were not especially needed so she returned to New York. She earned a second medical degree from Hygeia Therapeutic College and, by November, returned to Washington. After the Battle of Fredricksburg, Walker worked as a field surgeon near the Union front lines, treating soldiers in a tent hospital.
In September 1863, Walker was finally appointed assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland for which she made herself a slightly modified officer's uniform to wear, in response to the demands of traveling with the soldiers and working in field hospitals. She was then appointed assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry. During this assignment it is generally accepted that she also served as a spy. She continually crossed Confederate lines to treat civilians. She was taken prisoner in 1864 by Confederate troops and imprisoned in Richmond for four months until she was exchanged, with two dozen other Union doctors, for 17 Confederate surgeons.
She was released back to the 52nd Ohio as a contract surgeon, but spent the rest of the war practicing at a Louisville female prison and an orphan's asylum in Tennessee. She was paid $766.16 for her wartime service. Afterward, she got a monthly pension of $8.50, later raised to $20, but still less than some widows' pensions. She was discharged on June 15, 1865.
Upon recommendation of Major Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and George H. Thomas, on November 11, 1865, President Andrew Johnson signed a bill to present Dr. Mary Edwards Walker with the Congressional Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service, the highest military award of the U.S. at the time.
In 1917, Congress revised the standards for the Medal of Honor to include only "actual combat with an enemy," and took away the medals of 911 honorees, including Mary. She refused to give it back, however, despite it becoming a crime to wear an ‘unearned’ medal. She wore it from the day she got it until she died. Mary’s great-grandniece Ann Walker fought for years to have the medal restored. Finally on June 11, 1977, President Jimmy Carter reinstated Mary’s medal, citing her "distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex." currently it is on display in the Pentagon’s women’s corridor.
After the war she became an activist for women's rights and was arrested several times for impersonating a man or otherwise disrupting the peace because her attire often drew crowds. She used her arrests as an opportunity to promote the reform style of dress. In 1866 she became the president of the National Dress Reform Association.
She wrote for a women's magazine called Sibyl, which often discussed topics like the power of a woman's mind and the need for equal opportunity.
For a time Walker experienced a degree of success as a lecturer and dress reformer in the United States so much so that when she was asked by members of a social science congress to be a delegate in September 1866 in Manchester, England she used it as an opportunity for rest and relaxation. When she arrived in England Walker found the British public more accepting of her and her unusual attire and the "British press made her somewhat of a celebrity."
In 1871 she published her first book HIT, which included her thoughts on marriage, dress reform, tobacco, temperance, woman's franchise, divorce, labor, and religion. Of love and marriage she said that marriage was a "social contract" in which men and women should be "equal and life-long partners." She believed that tobacco was a "poison the happiness of domestic life" and harmed marriages; she also believed alcohol harmed marriages and families.
She wrote of her belief that women had a God given right to individuality that would only be realized when the government fully enfranchised women. Although Walker believed in marriage she also believed people should have the right to a divorce because to be denied a divorce was "like being shut up in a prison because someone attempted to kill you."
She followed HIT with another book, Unmasked; or The Science of Immorality, published in 1878. Unmasked was Walker's "treatise on ethics and sex for men" in which she included her thoughts on a variety of topics considered taboo from folk medicine to kissing and venereal disease.
She participated for several years with other leaders in the Women's suffrage movement, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The initial stance of the movement, taking Dr. Walker's lead, was to say that women already had the right to vote, and Congress need only enact enabling legislation. After a number of fruitless years working at this, the movement took the new tack of working for a Constitutional amendment. This was diametrically opposed to Mary Walker's position, and she fell out of favor with the movement. She continued to attend conventions of the suffrage movement and distribute her own brand of literature, but was virtually ignored by the rest of the movement. Her penchant for wearing male-style clothing, including a top hat, only exacerbated the situation.
Her death in 1919 came one year before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which guaranteed women the right to vote.
She was sixteen when Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the first women’s rights convention in nearby Seneca Falls, New York and although she did not attend the convention she read newspaper reports of it daily. Years later Walker worked for dress reform and suffrage with several of the women who attended the convention including Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone.
Walker believed traditional female attire was detrimental to women's health. She believed the weight of women’s clothing and the length of the skirts affected a woman's mental health and that freeing a woman from such clothing would benefit her mentally. Walker's devotion to dress reform as well as her profession represented a threat to the conventions of the period because pants and medicine traditionally belonged to men.
Mary Walker and Albert Miller’s wedding ceremony in 1855 was a non-conventional affair in which the bride wore pants. The couple was married by a Unitarian minister because Walker refused to include the “to obey” portion of the vows; and she refused to give up her maiden name.
The Walker and Miller marriage did not last due to rumored infidelity on Miller's part. For a woman who later wrote that "true conjugal companionship is the greatest blessing . . . to know that there is supreme interest in one individual . . ." infidelity was unforgivable. Mary Walker removed Albert Miller from her life and dissolved their medical practice though the divorce was not final until 1869.
Due to her eclectic medical training Walker opposed the practice of bloodletting and she insisted on good hygiene around the wounded. When exposed to the large number of amputations during the war she became convinced that surgeons performed unnecessary amputations; however, she did not approach the surgeons in her attempt to decrease the number of amputations. Instead she approached the wounded and convinced them to refuse the amputations.
In 1880 her father passed away, leaving her the Bunker Hill farm. She lived there until she passed away. In 1917, while in Washington, she fell on the Capitol steps. She was 85 years old and never fully recovered.
She died two years later on February 21, 1919 while staying at a neighbor's home in Oswego. Almost penniless, she was not so much remembered for her service to her country as she was for being "that shocking female surgeon in trousers!"
The Oswego County Historical Society has a collection of Walker possessions that consists of about 100 items, including letters, newspaper and magazine articles and several books covering the years 1861 to 1980. The letters comprise nearly half of the collection and consist of family correspondence, three letters from temperance societies, and one from Walker to "The Honorable Senate and House of Representatives." The society has Walker’s two diplomas from the Syracuse Medical College to practice medicine and perform surgery, and the original Executive Order for her Medal of Honor signed by President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of War Edward M. Stanton. They also have an oil painting of Walker attributed to A. J. Hubbell, 1878.
The artifacts with the collection include her Congressional Medal of Honor, the Medal of Valor, and another small medal identifying Walker as extra assistant Surgeon in the Army of the Potomac during 1861. Other artifacts include her silk top hat and two medical cases. Numerous photographs spanning her lifetime are also in the collection.
Walker, along with thousands of other women, was honored in the newly-dedicated Women in Military Service for America Memorial that was unveiled on October 1997. The Memorial was dedicated by Vice President and Mrs. Al Gore and Brigadier General Wilma L. Vaught, USAF, (Ret.) and President of the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation.
In World War II, a Liberty ship, the SS Mary Walker, was named for her.
In 1982, the U.S. Postal Service issued at 20 cent stamp in her honor.
The medical facilities at SUNY Oswego are named in her honor. On the same grounds a plaque explains her importance in the Oswego community.
There is a United States Army Reserve center named for her in Walker, Michigan.
All links retrieved August 29, 2018.
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