Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was born November 26, 1832 in New York. She was known to challenge the fashion standards of the time, often dressing in male clothing rather than the restrictive female clothing of the era. In her schooling she decided to pursue a career in a field that was predominantly male at the time, graduating with her doctoral degree in medicine in 1855. After graduating she started her own private practice in Columbus, Ohio.
After the Civil War broke out in 1862 she started volunteering as a nurse in Washington, DC after being denied a commission as a medical officer. After taking a brief break she rejoined as a volunteer and she started working on the battlefields in hospital tents in Virginia. She then moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee where she was appointed assistant surgeon for the Army of the Cumberland, working on the front lines. Throughout the war she worked in men’s clothing, claiming it was more comfortable, despite being scrutinized harshly for it.
In September 1863, Dr. Walker became the first female U.S. Army surgeon following her commission as a “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)” by the Army of the Cumberland. While serving the 52nd Ohio Infantry she would often cross lines, helping wounded soldiers on both sides of the battlefield. While in Tunnel Hill, Georgia in 1864 she rode up to a Confederate soldier, asking him to deliver some letters to Dalton for her, not knowing who she was he escorted her to Dalton himself. When she informed him that she was a Federal Surgeon for the Union army she was taken prisoner, she was imprisoned in Richmond, Virginia before being freed in a prisoner exchange. After being freed she went to Clarksville, Tennessee where she worked at the Louisville Women’s Prison Hospital and at an orphan asylum for the remainder of the war.
After retiring from service in June of 1865, President Andrew Johnson signed a bill on November 11, 1865, to present Walker with the Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service. Making her the first, and only, woman to receive the title. However, the title was stripped from her and many others in 1917 because of a change in criteria. After the war, she continued wearing male clothing, which caused her to often be confronted by ridicule and harassment throughout her life, even being arrested for it once.
For the remainder of her life she worked to fight for women’s suffrage and dress reform in America. During 1912 and 1914 she testified in front of the House of Representatives for women’s suffrage. However, as the fight started moving towards a Constitutional amendment she began to distance herself from the movement, claiming that the Constitution had already given the women the right to vote and that it was lacking enabling legislation from congress. In her later years she opened her home to those who were ostracized, harassed, and arrested for not conforming to the fashion standards for women.
Despite having her Medal of Honor title stripped from her, she continued to wear her medal every day until her death. Her title was later restored to her in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter. Dr. Mary Edwards Walker passed away on February 21, 1919. Just one year before women won the right to vote. She was buried in a black suit in New York.
To learn more about her please feel free to stop by the Tunnel Hill Heritage Center where
there is a new exhibit of Dr. Walker on display in the museum!