Dr. Mary Edwards Walker: War surgeon, suffragette, and pioneer in women’s rights

Editor’s note: This column is based on the theme of the Surgical History Group Panel Session at Clinical Congress 2019. Women Pioneers in Surgery will take place 9:45–11:15 am, Monday, October 28.

Dr. Walker (photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

Dr. Walker wearing her Medal of Honor (U.S. Army; photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

Mary Edwards Walker, MD, was the first woman military and trauma surgeon and the only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor. She was born in Oswego, NY, in 1832 and was the only woman to graduate from Syracuse Medical College, NY, in 1855. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Dr. Walker wanted to join the Army but was prohibited because of her gender. Dedicated to service, she volunteered as a surgeon in the Union Army. Her initial deployment was to a temporary hospital, set up at the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, DC. In DC, she organized the Women’s Relief Organization, which helped the families of wounded soldiers when they came to visit them in local hospitals.

Military surgeon

In 1862, Dr. Walker moved to Virginia, treating the wounded at field hospitals throughout the state. By 1863, the War Department accepted her credentials as a surgeon, and she officially became a surgeon for the Union Army stationed in Tennessee. She was appointed as an officer but was never officially commissioned.

Dr. Walker was captured in April 1864 and was a prisoner of war for approximately four months. She was released in a prisoner exchange and returned to the Union Army, serving as an assigned medical director at a hospital for women prisoners in Kentucky.

Dr. Walker (photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

Dr. Walker in a bloomer dress, 1860s (photo by M.J. Powers, Plumb Gallery, Washington, DC; Library of Congress)

In 1865, Dr. Walker left military service. In November, she was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson, even though she was a civilian who had never been commissioned as an officer in the armed forces. Her status as a civilian was the rationale for rescinding her medal in 1917. Her medal was restored by President Jimmy Carter in 1977.

Suffragette

In addition to her extraordinary wartime service, Dr. Walker was an outspoken advocate for women’s rights. In the 19th century, women were campaigning for more public recognition and clothing became a central issue in the struggle for women’s rights. Feminists argued that the constriction of corsets negatively affected their health and that long skirts limited their mobility. Dr. Walker emulated Amelia Bloomer, a fellow women’s rights advocate, and wore homemade dress and trouser combinations that allowed greater mobility without compromising female modesty. Dr. Walker wore the bloomer dress until the late 1870s, when she began dressing in men’s clothing.

An active suffragette, Dr. Walker sued the federal Elections Board in 1868, asserting that as an American, she was entitled to the right to vote. She unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1890 and the U.S. Senate in 1892 but remained active in the suffrage movement, testifying before Congress in 1912. She died in 1919 at the age of 86, one year prior to the passage of the 19th Amendment allowing women to vote.

Dr. Walker was a trailblazing surgeon, war veteran, and feminist who inspired the generations that followed. In 2016, the ACS Women in Surgery Committee established the Mary Edwards Walker Inspiring Women in Surgery Award.

Dr. Walker, wearing man’s top hat and coat, circa 1911 (photo by Bain News Service, Bain Collection, Washington, DC)

Dr. Walker, wearing man’s top hat and coat, circa 1911 (photo by Bain News Service, Bain Collection, Washington, DC; Library of Congress)


Bibliography

Lange K. Meet Dr. Mary Walker: The only female Medal of Honor recipient. Available at: www.army.mil/article/183800/meet_dr_mary_walker_the_only_female_medal_of_honor_recipient. Accessed April 24, 2019.

National Library of Medicine. Changing the face of medicine: Mary Edwards Walker. Available at: https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_325.html. Accessed April 24, 2019.

Pass AR, Bishop JD. Mary Edwards Walker: Trailblazing feminist, surgeon, and war veteran. Available at: facs.org/~/media/files/archives/shg%20poster/2016/06_walker.ashx. Accessed April 24, 2019.

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