Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Mary Edwards Walker, M.D.

Mary Edwards Walker was definitely a "gutsy" woman. She has the distinction of being a prisoner of war during the Civil War, writer, doctor, fashion trend-setter and the only female to receive the Medal of Honor.

She was born November 26, 1832 in Oswego, New York. She was the youngest of five daughters and one son, born to Alvah and Vesta Walker. Her father was a carpenter-farmer and abolitionist who believed in free thinking and many of the reform movements in the mid-1800's, including education and equality for his daughters, as well as dress reform. The girls provided farm labor, so their father did not expect them to wear restrictive undergarments while working. He also intended that all his children would be educated and pursue professional careers.

Mary had shown an interest in her father's medical books at an early age so was encouraged to pursue this career. While teaching she saved money and, in December 1853, enrolled in Syracuse Medical College. After three 13-week semesters of medical training she graduated in June, 1855. At 21 years old she was the only woman in her class, and the second female doctor in the nation.

Mary led a controversial life, most likely fostered by her father's thinking and she became an early supporter of women's rights and passtionately spoke about dress reform. In 1856, at her wedding to Albert Miller, another physician, she wore trousers and a man's coat. Their wedding vows did not include anything about "obeying." And, she kept her own last name. Mary and Albert began a joint medical practice in Rome, New York, but many people were not ready for a woman physician so the practice floundered. Albert was apparently unfaithful to her and so, four years later, they separated and Mary moved into a smaller room for living and working.

In the summer of 1860 she stayed with a family friend in Delhi, Owa, hoping to secure a divorce (Iowa had more lenient laws), but she returned to Rome without the divorce the next summer, most likely due to the outbreak of the Civil War. In July, 1861, just after the Battle of Bull Run she went to Washington, D.C, to join the Army as a medical officer. She was denied, so she volunteered, serving as acting assistant surgeon at the hospital setup in the U.S. Patient Office.

In September 1863, Mary was appointed assistant surgeon to the 52nd Ohio Infantry in Cumberland, based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and wore a slightly modified version of an officer's unfiorm, carying two pistols at all times. On April 10, 1864, wearing her uniform she walked into a band of Confederate soldiers just south of the Georgia-Tennessee border and was taken hostage. For four months she was imprisoned at Castle Thunder, near Richmond, Virginia. She complained about the lack of grain and vegetables for prisoners and the Confederates added wheat bread and cabbage to the food rations. On August 12, 1864 she was exchanged, along with 24 other Union doctors, for 17 Confederate doctors. She was proud that her exchange was for a Confederate surgeon of the rank of major.

May returned to Ohio as a contract surgeon and after a long appeal to the government for a commission for her service in the War was finally granted her commission as acting assistant surgeon, with a $100 monthly salary. For her wartime service she was paid $766.16 and later received a monthly pension of $8.50 (later raised to $20.00).

Upon recommendation of Major Generals William T. Sherman and George H. Thomas, on November 11, 1865, President Andrew Johnson signed a bill to present Dr. Mary Edwards Walker with the Congressional Medical of Honor for Meritorious Service. She remains the only woman to receive the Congressional Medical of Honor - the highest military award of the US at the time.

After the war ended, Mary worked to get relief bills for war nurses, but the Congressional bills died in committee. She also began writing and lecturing throughout the United States and abroad on women's rights, dress reform, health and temperance issues. In 1868 she and Belva Lockwood testified before the Judiciary Committee of the District of Columbia House of Delegates, on a bill to allow women in the D.C. area to vote.

In 1869 Mary finally received her divorce from New York state. Two years later she wrote her first book, "hit," which was a combination autobiography and commentary on divorce. She called for more equitable laws so wives and children could excape unhappy homes; thus requiring the women's ability to vote. She went on to write another book in 1878 as well.

In 1880 her father passed away, leaving her the Bunker Hill farm. She lived there until she passed away. In 1917, while in Washington, she fell on the Capitol steps. She was 85 years old and never fully recovered. She died two years later on February 21, 1919 while staying at a neighbor's home in Oswego. Almost penniless, she was not so much remembered for her service to her country as she was for being "that shocking female surgeon in trousers!" In that same year, the 19th Amendment was ratified.

In 1982 the US Post Office issued a 20-cent stamp honoring Dr. Mary Walker as the first woman to have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and as the second woman to graduate from a medical school in the U.S. In 2000, Mary Edwards Walker was inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.

Copyright M. A. Webb, 2005. All Rights Reserved.

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