Thursday, November 26, 2009

November 26: Mary Edwards Walker and the Medal of Honor

She was a controversial figure her entire adult life – often living up to her nickname of ‘Contrary Mary’. She was the second licensed woman doctor in the United States, graduating four and one half years after Elizabeth Blackwell achieved her degree.

Mary Edwards Walker was born on November 26, 1832, in Oswego, New York. Her parents were Alvah Walker and his wife Vesta, who owned a farm in the community. She was the youngest of the five Walker daughters, and had one younger brother. The Walker children - Mary, Aurora, Luna, Vesta, Cynthia and one son, Alvah Jr. – grew up in a household which held lively discussions on the issues of the day.

Because farming was labor-intensive, Walker worked in the fields, plowing, planting, and harvesting – along with the myriad of other farm duties that fell on the shoulders of a small farming family. All of the Walker girls wore men’s clothing – pants and shirt – while working in the fields of the thirty-three acre farm because their father felt that the traditional women’s dress was too restrictive and confining for work. Their father was a carpenter as well as a farmer, and was involved in many of the reform movements that sprung up in the nation during the 1830s. He also became a self-taught country doctor in a frontier region that had few doctors. He was an abolitionist as that movement was established – his farm was a ‘station’ on the underground railroad - as well as a supporter of education and equality for his daughters. He wanted all of his children to have a profession to support themselves with.

Walker attended the local elementary school that her father built and where her mother was the teacher. She also attended Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York – where she received additional instruction in grammar, mathematics, philosophy, and hygiene. After graduation in 1852 she entered the work force as a teacher in the village of Minetto, New York.

However, Walker had developed a desire for an unusual career for a mid-19th century American woman. After watching and assisting her father as he ‘doctored’ injured farmers and farm hands, she decided that she wanted to become a trained doctor.

In December 1853, Walker enrolled in the Syracuse Medical College – an institution that was the first medical college in the U.S. to equally accept men and women as students. She spent three thirteen-week semesters involved in medical training, paying $55 for each semester. She graduated – the only woman in her class and the second licensed woman doctor in the United States - in June 1853.

She married a fellow medical student, Albert Miller in 1856. Miller was a free thinker in the mode of Walker’s father. They married in Oswego with Walker wearing trousers, a frock coat, and cutting any reference from the ceremony of the bride’s obligations to obey her spouse. She rejected the idea that a woman was mandated to have a man’s protection. As she later said: “You are not our protectors. If you were, who would there be to protect us from?” She begrudgingly changed her name – to Dr. Mary Miller-Walker. As she commented:
“A woman’s name is as dear to her as a man’s is to him, and custom ought, and will prevail, where each will keep their own names when they marry, and allow the children at a certain age to decide which name they will prefer.”
They set up a joint practice in Rome, New York, but the practice was not overly successful. Women physicians were not generally trusted or respected in the mid-nineteenth century. By March 1861, Walker found out that her husband was an adulterer, and had separated from him. The final divorce would be granted five years later.

When the American Civil War broke out, Walker went to Washington, D.C. to join the army as a surgeon and medical officer for the Union forces. Her request was denied, so she volunteered her services, being accepted as an acting assistant surgeon at the hospital set up at the U.S. Patent Office. The hospital was nicknamed the Indiana Hospital because of the number of patients there who were from Indiana. At one point, her superior, Dr. J.N. Green, recommended that she receive a commission in the Army as a doctor, but it was never granted.

Her duties were varied: serving in the operating room, accompanying badly wounded soldiers home, and, when she saw the need, organizing the Women’s Relief Association which provided temporary lodging for the mothers, wives, and children of soldiers who were in Washington.

By 1862 she had gained a second medical degree (from Hygeia Therapeutic College in New York), and November found her with the Union Army of the Potomac, serving as a civilian surgeon at the battle of Fredericksburg.

By September 1863 she had been appointed as the assistant surgeon in the 52nd Ohio Infantry, Army of the Cumberland, by General George Thomas – an appointment which was protested by the other (male) doctors in the army. She designed and wore a modified officers uniform, and always carried two pistols. Besides serving the Union forces, Walker also often went into Confederate territory to help civilians – leading some to think that she was also acting as a spy.

On one of her excursions into Confederate territory Walker was captured by the Confederates and imprisoned at Castle Thunder, near Richmond, Virginia. While there she was able talk the Confederates into providing more wheat and cabbage into the rations for the prisoners. Taken prisoner in April 1864, she was exchanged in August 1864, returning to the 52nd Ohio as a surgeon.

On October 5, 1864, Walker was commissioned as an acting assistant surgeon, becoming the first female commissioned surgeon in the Army. She would be discharged on June 15, 1865.

Walker became the only woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor when, upon the recommendation of both Generals William Sherman and George Thomas, President Andrew Johnson signed the bill authorizing the medal. The citation read in part:
“Whereas it appears from official reports that Dr. Mary E. Walker, a graduate of medicine, "has rendered valuable service to the Government, and her efforts have been earnest and untiring in a variety of ways," and that she was assigned to duty and served as an assistant surgeon in charge of female prisoners at Louisville, Ky., upon the recommendation of Major-Generals Sherman and Thomas, and faithfully served as contract surgeon in the service of the United States, and has devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health, and has also endured hardships as a prisoner of war four months in a Southern prison while acting as contract surgeon; and Whereas by reason of her not being a commissioned officer in the military service, a brevet or honorary rank cannot, under existing laws, be conferred upon her; and
Whereas in the opinion of the President an honorable recognition of her services and sufferings should be made:
It is ordered, That a testimonial thereof shall be hereby made and given to the said Dr. Mary E. Walker, and that the usual medal of honor for meritorious services be given her.”
Even the giving of the medal would be a controversy in Walker’s life. In 1917 Congress revised the standards for receiving the medal to be based on “actual combat with an enemy”, taking away the medals from 911 individuals. Walker refused to give back her medal, wearing it until she died two years later. After a long battle by her great-grandniece Ann Walker, President Jimmy Carter restored the medal in 1977.

Walker continued her medical practice after the war. She also travelled as a lecturer and wrote several books dealing with women’s rights and women’s dress. Concerning women’s suffrage, she stated: “You imprison women for crimes you have forbidden women to legislate upon.”

After her father died in 1880 Walker moved back to her girlhood home, the farm in Oswego. She lived there until she died in 1919 at the age of 86, and was buried in trousers and a topcoat in the Rural Cemetery, Oswego County, New York.

Walker, Dale L., Mary Edwards Walker: Above and Beyond
Doherty, Karen, Congressional Medal of Honor Recipients


About North Georgia
Above and Beyond
American Association of University Women
American Civil War
Find A Grave
Medal of Honor Citations
National Library of Medicine
Oswego Library
Women in History


Walker Portrait of Mary Walker: Wikipedia
Walker Bloomer Dress of 1860s: National Library of Medicine
Walker Portrait of Mary Walker sitting: Library of Congress
Walker Picture of Mary Walker standing: National Library of Medicine
Gravesite of Mary Edwards Walker: Find A Grave

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