Mary Edwards Walker, M.D. (26 November 1832 to 21 February 1919), commonly referred to as Dr. Mary Walker, was an American abolitionist, prohibitionist, prisoner of war and surgeon. She is the only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honour.
In 1855, she earned her medical degree at Syracuse Medical College in New York, married and started a medical practice. She volunteered with the Union Army at the outbreak of the American Civil War and served as a surgeon at a temporary hospital in Washington, D.C., even though at the time women and sectarian physicians were considered unfit for the Union Army Examining Board. She was captured by Confederate forces after crossing enemy lines to treat wounded civilians and arrested as a spy. She was sent as a prisoner of war to Richmond, Virginia until released in a prisoner exchange.
After the war, she was approved for the Medal of Honour, for her efforts to treat the wounded during the Civil War. Notably, the award was not expressly given for gallantry in action at that time, and in fact was the only military decoration during the Civil War. Walker is the only woman to receive the medal and one of only eight civilians to receive it. Her name was deleted from the Army Medal of Honour Roll in 1917 (along with over 900 other, male MOH recipients); however, it was restored in 1977. After the war, she was a writer and lecturer supporting the women’s suffrage movement until her death in 1919.
Early Life and Education
Mary Edwards Walker was born in the Town of Oswego, New York, on 26 November 1832, the daughter of Alvah (father) and Vesta (mother) Walker. She was the youngest of seven children: she had five sisters and one brother. Alvah and Vesta raised both their son and their daughters in a progressive manner that was revolutionary for the time. Their non-traditional parenting nurtured Mary’s spirit of independence and sense of justice that she actively demonstrated throughout her life. While they were devoted Christians, the Walkers were “free thinkers” who raised their children to question the regulations and restrictions of various denominations. The Walker parents also demonstrated non-traditional gender roles to their children regarding sharing work around the farm: Vesta often participated in heavy labour while Alvah took part in general household chores. Walker worked on her family farm as a child. She did not wear women’s clothing during farm labour because she considered it too restricting. Her mother reinforced her views that corsets and tight lacings were unhealthy.
Her elementary education consisted of attendance at the local school that her parents had started. The Walkers were determined that their daughters be as well-educated as their son, so they founded the first free schoolhouse in Oswego in the late 1830s. After finishing primary school, Mary and two of her older sisters attended Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York. Falley was not only an institution of higher learning, but a place that emphasized modern social reform in gender roles, education, and hygiene. Its ideologies and practices further cemented Mary’s determination to defy traditional feminine standards on a principle of injustice. In her free time, Mary would pore over her father’s medical texts on anatomy and physiology; her interest in medicine is attributable to her exposure to medical literature at an early age. As a young woman, she taught at a school in Minetto, New York, eventually earning enough money to pay her way through Syracuse Medical College, where she graduated with honours as a medical doctor in 1855, the only woman in her class.
She married a fellow medical school student, Albert Miller, on 16 November 1855, shortly before she turned 23. Walker wore a short skirt with trousers underneath, refused to include “obey” in her vows, and retained her last name, all characteristic of her obstinate nonconformity. 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. They later divorced, on account of Miller’s infidelity.
Walker briefly attended Bowen Collegiate Institute (later named Lenox College) in Hopkinton, Iowa, in 1860, until she was suspended for refusing to resign from the school’s debating society, which until she joined had been all male.
Inspired by her parents’ novel standard of dressing for health purposes, Walker was infamous for contesting traditional female wardrobe. In 1871, she wrote, “The greatest sorrows from which women suffer to-day are those physical, moral, and mental ones, that are caused by their unhygienic manner of dressing!” She strongly opposed women’s long skirts with numerous petticoats, not only for their discomfort and their inhibition to the wearer’s mobility but for their collection and spread of dust and dirt. As a young woman, she began experimenting with various skirt-lengths and layers, all with men’s trousers underneath. By 1861, her typical ensemble included trousers with suspenders under a knee-length dress with a tight waist and full skirt.
While encouraged by her family, Walker’s wardrobe choices were often met with criticism. Once, while a schoolteacher, she was assaulted on her way home by a neighbouring farmer and a group of boys, who chased her and attacked her with eggs and other projectiles. Female colleagues in medical school criticized her choices, and patients often gawked at her and teased her. She nevertheless persisted in her mission to reform women’s dress. Her view that women’s dress should “protect the person, and allow freedom of motion and circulation, and not make the wearer a slave to it” made her commitment to dress reform as great as her zeal for abolitionism. She famously wrote to the women’s journal, The Sibyl: A Review of the Tastes, Errors, and Fashions of Society, about her campaign against women’s fashion, amongst other things, for its injuries to health, its expense, and its contribution to the dissolution of marriages. Her literature contributed to the spread of her ideas and made her a popular figure amongst other feminists and female physicians.
In 1870, Walker was arrested in New Orleans and mocked by men because she was dressed as a man. The arresting officer Mullahy twisted her arm and asked her if she had ever had sex with a man. Walker was released from custody when she was recognised at Police Court.
American Civil War
Walker volunteered at the outbreak of American Civil War as a surgeon – first for the Army, but was rejected because she was a woman (despite having kept a private practice for many years). She was offered the role of a nurse but declined and chose to volunteer as a surgeon for the Union Army as a civilian. The US Army had no female surgeons, and at first, she was allowed to practice only as a nurse. During this period, she served at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), 21 July 1861, and at the Patent Office Hospital in Washington, D.C. She worked as an unpaid field surgeon near the Union front lines, including at the Battle of Fredericksburg and in Chattanooga after the Battle of Chickamauga. As a suffragist, she was happy to see women serving as soldiers, and alerted the press to the case of Frances Hook, in Ward 2 of the Chattanooga hospital, a woman who served in the Union forces disguised as a man. Walker was the first female surgeon of the Union army. She wore men’s clothing during her work, claiming it to be easier for high demands of her work.
In September 1862, Walker wrote to the War Department requesting employment as a spy, but her proposal was declined. In September 1863, she was employed as a “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)” by the Army of the Cumberland, becoming the first female surgeon employed by the US Army Surgeon. Walker was later appointed assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry. During her service, she frequently crossed battle lines and treated civilians.
On 10 April 1864, she was captured by Confederate troops, and arrested as a spy, just after she finished helping a Confederate doctor perform an amputation. She was sent to Castle Thunder in Richmond, Virginia, and remained there until 12 August 1864, when she was released as part of a prisoner exchange. While she was imprisoned, she refused to wear the clothes provided her, said to be more “becoming of her sex”. Walker was exchanged for a Confederate surgeon from Tennessee on 12 August 1864.
She went on to serve as supervisor of a female prison in Louisville, Kentucky, and as the head of an orphanage in Tennessee.
After the war, Walker was awarded a disability pension for partial muscular atrophy suffered while she was imprisoned by the enemy. She was given $8.50 a month, beginning 13 June 1865, but in 1899 that amount was raised to $20 per month.
She became a writer and lecturer, supporting such issues as health care, temperance, women’s rights, and dress reform for women. She was frequently arrested for wearing men’s clothing, and insisted on her right to wear clothing that she thought appropriate. She wrote two books that discussed women’s rights and dress. She replied to criticism of her attire: “I don’t wear men’s clothes, I wear my own clothes.”
Walker was a member of the central woman’s suffrage Bureau in Washington, and solicited funds to endow a chair for a female professor at Howard University medical school. She attempted to register to vote in 1871, but was turned away. The initial stance of the movement, following her lead, was to claim that women already had the right to vote, and Congress needed only to enact enabling legislation. After a number of fruitless years advocating this position, the movement promoted the adoption of a constitutional amendment. This was diametrically opposed to her position, and she fell out of favour with the movement. She continued to attend suffrage conventions and distribute her own literature, but was virtually ignored by the rest of the movement. Her penchant for wearing masculine clothing, including a top hat, only exacerbated the situation. She received a more favourable reception in England than in the United States.
In 1907, Walker published “Crowning Constitutional Argument”, in which she argued that some States, as well as the federal Constitution, had already granted women the right to vote. She testified on women’s suffrage before committees of the US House of Representatives in 1912 and 1914.
After a long illness, Walker died at home on 21 February 1919, at the age of eighty-six. She was buried at Rural Cemetery in Oswego, New York, in a plain funeral, with an American flag draped over her casket, and wearing a black suit instead of a dress. 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.
Honours and Awards
Medal of Honour
After the war, Walker sought a retroactive brevet or commission to validate her service. President Andrew Johnson directed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to study the legality of the issue, and he solicited an opinion from the Army’s Judge Advocate General, who determined that there was no precedent for commissioning a female, but that a “commendatory acknowledgment” could be issued in lieu of the commission. This led Johnson to personally award the Medal of Honour as an alternative. Thus, Walker was not formally recommended for the Medal of Honour, and this unusual process may also explain why authorities overlooked her ineligibility, ironically on the grounds of lacking a commission.
In 1916, the US Congress created a pension act for Medal of Honour recipients, and in doing so created separate Army and Navy Medal of Honour Rolls. The Army was directed to review eligibility of prior recipients in a separate bill not related to the pension rolls, but which had been requested by the Army in order to retroactively police undesirable awards. The undesirable awards resulted from the lack of regulations on the medal; the Army had published no regulations until 1897, and the law had very few requirements, meaning that recipients could earn a medal for virtually any reason, resulting in nearly 900 awards for enlistment extensions not in combat. The Army’s Medal of Honour Board deliberated from 1916 to 1917, and struck 911 names from the Army Medal of Honour Roll, including those of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker and William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Both were considered ineligible for the Army Medal of Honour because 1862, 1863, and 1904 laws strictly required recipients to be officers or enlisted members. In Walker’s case, she was a civilian contract surgeon and was not a commissioned officer. Nevertheless, the Medal of Honour Board perhaps discriminated against Walker because it declined to revoke the Medal of at least two other contract surgeons who were equally ineligible. One of these was Major General Leonard Wood, a former Chief of Staff of the Army who was a civilian contract surgeon in the same status as Walker when he was recommended for the award. This was known to the Medal of Honour Board, as board president General Nelson Miles had twice recommended Wood’s medal and knew that he was ineligible. The disenrolled recipients were not ordered to return their medals per a recommendation from the Army Judge Advocate General, who noted that Congress did not grant the Army the jurisdiction to enforce this provision of the statute, rendering both the repossession and criminal penalties inoperative.
Although several sources attribute President Jimmy Carter with restoring Walker’s medal posthumously in 1977, this is probably incorrect, since the action was taken well below the Secretary of the Army, at the level of the Army’s Assistant Secretary for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, which was acting on a recommendation from the Board for Correction of Military Records. In fact, both the Ford and Carter Administrations opposed the restoration; the Carter White House reacted with confusion to the announcement of the Board’s decision. A recent historical work documented that the Board for Correction probably exceeded its authority in making a unilateral restoration of the medal, since the Board is merely a delegation of the authority of the Secretary of the Army, and thus cannot contradict a standing law much less a law that expressly required the revocation of Walker’s medal. Therefore, the decision was controversial because it raised separation of powers issues; the Board’s mandate was only to correct errors or injustices within its authority, not act against the authority of public law. This very point was illustrated by the awarding of Garlin Conner’s Medal of Honour in early 2018, which also originated from the Board for Correction, but instead went through the President and required a statutory waiver from Congress – seen to be a requirement because the Board lacked the authority to contravene a public law and the associated statutes of limitations.
Walker felt that she had been awarded the Medal of Honour because she had gone into enemy territory to care for the suffering inhabitants, when no man had the courage to do so, for fear of being imprisoned.
Attribution and citation
Rank and organization: Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian), U.S. Army. Places and dates: Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861; Patent Office Hospital, Washington, D.C., October 1861; Chattanooga, Tennessee, following Battle of Chickamauga, September 1863; Prisoner of War, April 10, 1864 – August 12, 1864, Richmond, Virginia; Battle of Atlanta, September 1864. Entered service at: Louisville, Kentucky. Born: 26 November 1832, Oswego County, New York.
Where as 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, Kentucky, 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.
National Women’s Hall of Fame
Walker was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000.
During World War II, a Liberty ship, the SS Mary Walker, was named for her.
In 1982, the US Postal Service issued a twenty-cent stamp in her honour, commemorating the anniversary of her birth.
The medical facilities at SUNY Oswego are named in her honour (Mary Walker Health Centre). On the same grounds a plaque explains her importance in the Oswego community.
There is a United States Army Reserve centre named for her in Walker, Michigan.
The Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C., is named in honour of Walker and the poet Walt Whitman, who was a nurse in D.C. during the Civil War.
The Mary Walker Clinic at Fort Irwin National Training Centre in California is named in honour of Walker.
The Mary E. Walker House is a thirty-bed transitional residence run by the Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service & Education Centre for homeless women veterans.
In May 2012, a 900-pound bronze statue honouring Walker was unveiled in front of the Oswego, New York Town Hall.
In 2019, Walker was included in Hillary and Chelsea Clinton’s book The Book of Gutsy Women: Favourite Stories of Courage and Resilience.