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Paving the way for women in military medicine: Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

Image of Old picture of Dr. Mary Edwards wearing her Medal of Honor. A photo by Mathew Brady of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker circa 1866, shown wearing her Medal of Honor (Photo by: Courtesy of National Archives).

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Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was the first woman to be appointed as an assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army, she is also the only woman to date to have received the Medal of Honor, the U.S. government's highest and most prestigious military decoration.

Born in Oswego, New York, on Nov. 26, 1832, Walker graduated from Syracuse Medical College with honors in 1855. She subsequently married Albert Miller, and they started a medical practice in Rome, New York, shortly thereafter.

At the onset of the Civil War, Walker, then 23, traveled to Washington seeking a commission as an Army surgeon or a position as a contract surgeon. Both requests were denied as there was no policy in place for hiring female physicians. She then volunteered as a nurse, but continued to request a commission as an Army surgeon. After three years of persistence, she was hired as a contract surgeon and attached to the 52nd Ohio Infantry.

Walker served at the first Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Fredericksburg, often near the Union front lines.

Army Maj. Gen. George Thomas and Maj. Gen. William Sherman, general of the Union Army, noted that Walker "...passed frequently beyond our lines far within those of the enemy and, at one time, gained information that led Gen. Sherman to modify his strategic operations as to save himself from a serious reverse and obtain success where defeat before seemed to be inevitable."

Walker's insistence on tending to injured civilians inside Confederate territory led to her being captured as a spy by Confederate forces near Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1864 after helping a Confederate doctor perform an amputation. She was held in a prison in Richmond, Virginia, for four months and commissioned as an acting U.S. Army assistant surgeon following her release.

Picture of a pocket surgical kit
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker’s pocket surgical kit, on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Pocket surgical kits were designed to be compact and customizable, allowing surgeons to carry the tools they found most useful on their person for small surgeries or emergencies in the field (Photo by: Matthew Breitbart, National Museum of Health and Medicine). 

Following her actions during the war, President Andrew Johnson awarded Walker the Medal of Honor for, “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.” Aside from being the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor, she is also one of only eight civilians to receive the award.

After the war, Walker served as assistant surgeon at a women's prison in Louisville, Kentucky, and as the head of an orphanage in Tennessee. She also became a writer and a lecturer, supporting issues including health care and women's rights.

In 1916, Walker's medal was rescinded with 910 others for there being "no evidence of distinguished gallantry." Walker refused to surrender her medal and died in 1919. In 1977, then-Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander Jr. ordered that her name be restored to the Medal of Honor roll.

Walker's contributions to military medicine served to open the door for all women serving throughout the Department of Defense and Military Health System today.

Walker's pocket surgical kit, which features the tools she used while working in the field, is part of the National Museum of Health and Medicine's historical collection and is on display at the museum.

Information for this article came from the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

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