Mary Edwards Walker was the first woman in the United States to earn a medical degree. She was a physician and field surgeon during the Civil War and became the first woman to receive the Medal of Honor. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we highlight some of her notable contributions to women in medicine.
About Mary Edwards Walker
Walker was born in Oswego, New York on November 26, 1832. She was one of five children by two abolitionist parents, Alvah and Vesta. She was the youngest of seven children–five sisters and one brother. Walker’s parents highly-valued education and started the first free school in Oswego, where she and her three sisters attended.
Mary Edwards Walker completed her post-secondary education at Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York. Afterward, she knew that she wanted to become a doctor but became a teacher instead. She finally saved enough money to attend Syracuse Medical College and became the second woman to graduate from the institution following Elizabeth Blackwell.
Upon completing her education, Walker and her husband started a medical practice in Rome, New York. At the time, people weren’t accepting of female doctors, so it wasn’t successful. She decided to become a medical officer during the Civil War instead but got denied again because she was a woman. She worked as an unpaid volunteer surgeon in Washington until she was finally accepted to practice as a surgeon in the war.
The Civil War
Mary Edwards Walker cared for many soldiers and civilians during the Civil War. In 1864, the Confederate Troops captured her as a spy. As a result, she was imprisoned in Richmond, Virginia for four months. After her release, she became the assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Regiment in Tennessee. She went on to become medical director at a hospital for women prisoners in Kentucky.
Medal of Honor
Following the war, President Andrew Johnson awarded Walker the Medal of Freedom. She was and still to this day is the first and only woman to win the prestigious award. After Walker passed away at 86 from illness, they reviewed her eligibility for the honor because she didn’t meet the requirements. The committee revoked it since she was never a commissioned officer in the military. Decades later, Jimmy Carter restored the Medal of Honor to Walker’s name due to her notable achievements as one of the most influential women in history.
Contributions to Women in Medicine
In addition to her work during the Civil War, Walker made many other notable contributions to women in medicine. She started the Women’s Relief Organization which helped families who came to visit their wounded loved ones at the hospital.
Additionally, she was a strong advocate for women’s rights with an emphasis on dress-reform. Many people scrutinized her for wearing men’s clothes because it was outside the norm of what women wore at the time. She was even arrested in New Orleans in 1870 for dressing like a man.
Walker was also involved in politics. She advocated for women’s suffrage after being denied the right to vote in 1871. She went on to campaign for US Senate and ran for Congress in 1890. Although she lost both times, her passion and dedication to women’s rights didn’t go unnoticed.
Furthermore, Walker published two books–Hit and Unmasked or the Science of Immorality.
Women’s History Month
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we highlight the influential women in history who have pioneered the way for years to come. Some of the most notable are women in medicine, such as Mary Edwards Walker, whose contributions and accomplishments are still felt today.