Suffragette, surgeon, and, some say, spy, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker is the first and only woman ever to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Mary Edwards Walker was born on November 26, 1832, in Oswego, New York. Her father was a self-taught doctor who believed strongly in equal rights and equal education for his five daughters. He thought that women’s fashions were constrictive and even unhealthy and discouraged his daughters’ wearing them. Mary took his advice to heart and adopted a style of wearing loose garments over a sort of trouser called, “bloomers.”
In 1853 Mary enrolled in Syracuse Medical College, the nation’s first medical school and one of the few that accepted women on an equal basis with men. In 1855, at the age of twenty-one, she graduated. A year later she married another physician, Doctor Albert Miller, a classmate at Syracuse. In a radical move for the time, Mary kept her maiden name. Dr. Walker and Dr. Miller set up a practice in Rome, New York, but it failed. The public was not ready to accept a female physician. The marriage ended in divorce in 1869.
When the Civil War broke out, Dr. Walker rushed to enlist on the side of the Union. She was denied a commission as an army surgeon but volunteered anyway serving as an assistant surgeon at the U.S. Patent Office Hospital in Washington. From there she was transferred to the Union front lines to work side by side with male field surgeons. Though the fighting she saw was fierce and her work impeccable, the army refused to promote Dr. Walker above the status of “volunteer.”
Finally, in 1863, she got her army appointment becoming assistant surgeon of the Army of the Cumberland and the first female army surgeon ever. Shortly thereafter she was transferred to the 52nd Ohio Infantry. Even in uniform Dr. Walker was controversial. She wore trousers, a modified men’s uniform jacket, and carried two pistols at all times.
On a number of occasions Dr. Walker crossed enemy lines to assist Confederate civilians, treating sick women and children with supplies taken from Federal stores. In 1864 she was captured by Confederate troops and sent to prison as a spy. Whether or not she was spying remains a matter of some debate. After four months behind bars she was exchanged, along with two dozen other Union doctors, for 17 Confederate surgeons. It is said that Dr. Walker expressed great pleasure at being exchanged, “man for man.”
Dr. Walker spent the rest of the war practicing at a Louisville, Kentucky, women’s prison then at an orphanage in Tennessee. She was paid $766.16 for her wartime service then given a monthly pension of $8.50. That was later raised to $20, but it was still less than most widows’ pensions.
On November 11, 1865, Dr. Walker was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service. A portion of the award’s text reads, “… it appears from official reports that Dr. Mary E. Walker … has rendered valuable service to the Government … and has devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and in hospitals …”
In 1917 her Medal of Honor was taken away when Congress revised the standards to include only those who engaged in “actual combat with an enemy.” Dr. Walker suspected the real reason for the revocation was her involvement in the women’s suffrage movement. A relative told the New York Times, “Dr. Mary lost the medal simply because she was a hundred years ahead of her time and no one could stomach it.” Dr. Walker refused to give the medal back and wore it every day until she died.
In 1977 The Army Board reinstated the medal posthumously citing Dr. Walker’s “distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication, and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex.”
After her service in the Civil War Dr. Walker became a writer and lecturer. She traveled the U.S. and Europe giving speeches on dress reform, women’s rights, and the health risks of tobacco and alcohol. She became the president of the Dress Reform Association and prided herself on the numerous times she was arrested for wearing full men’s dress.
Among the writings she left behind are two books: a combination biography and commentary called, Hit, and Unmasked, or the Science of Immortality.
Dr. Walker died in her hometown of Oswego, New York, on February 21, 1919. Her birthplace on Bunker Hill Road is an historical landmark. On June 10, 1982, a 20-cent stamp was issued in her honor. It commemorates the first woman to win the Medal of Honor and the second to graduate from medical school in the United States.