Mary Walker was a physician and women’s rights activist who received the Medal of Honor for her service during the Civil War.
Mary Walker was born on November 26, 1832, in Oswego, New York. She graduated from Syracuse Medical College and, while serving as an assistant surgeon during the Civil War, was captured by the Confederate army. She was awarded a Medal of Honor for her service, and went on to lecture on women's rights, dress reform and suffrage. Walker died in Oswego in 1919.
Early Life and Career
Famed physician, feminist, women's rights activist and Civil War veteran Mary Edwards Walker is best known for becoming the first woman to receive the Medal of Honor (1865). She's also known for her work as an outspoken women's rights activist, for seeking to change the restrictive styles of women's fashions of her day, and for refusing to be held back by her gender.
Born on November 26, 1832, in Oswego, New York, Mary Walker gained an early education at the Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York. Pursuing a career in a traditionally male field, she then enrolled at Syracuse Medical College, graduating with a Doctor of Medicine degree in 1855. Thereafter, she relocated to Columbus, Ohio, where she started a private practice. Returning to her home state not long after, Walker married fellow physician Albert Miller, and the couple moved upstate, to Rome, New York.
Soon after the Civil War began in 1861, Walker began volunteering as an nurse, working early on at the Patent Office Hospital in Washington, D.C. She took a break from volunteering her services in 1862 to earn a degree from the New York Hygeio-Therapeutic College in New York City, but soon returned to the war effort. This time, she worked on the battlefield, in tent hospitals in Warrenton and Fredericksburg, Virginia. In the fall of 1863, Walker traveled to Tennessee, where she was appointed assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland by General George H. Thomas, one of the principal commanders in the Civil War's Western Theater.
Receiving the Medal of Honor
In April 1864, Mary Walker was captured and imprisoned by the Confederate Army. She was released that August, after being held in Richmond, Virginia, for several months. Following her release, Walker briefly returned to Washington, D.C. In the fall of 1864, she received a contract as an "acting assistant surgeon" with the Ohio 52nd Infantry, and soon began supervising a hospital for women prisoners and then an orphanage.
Mary Walker retired from government service in June 1865. Later that year, in recognition of her courageous war efforts, she was awarded the Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service—becoming the first woman to receive the honor. Nearly a century later, Mary Walker remains the only female Medal of Honor recipient.
After the Civil War, Walker lectured on such issues as dress reform and women's suffrage, but did not support a proposed suffrage amendment, contending that the right to vote was already contained in the Constitution.
In an unfortunate turn of events, in 1917, the U.S. government changed the criteria for the Medal of Honor and withdrew Walker's medal, though she continued to wear it thereafter. She died two years later, on February 21, 1919, in Oswego, New York. Nearly 60 years after her death, in 1977, Mary Walker's Medal of Honor was posthumously restored by President Jimmy Carter.