"It is the times which are behind me."
-- Mary Edwards Walker, MD
Mary Edwards Walker was born in Oswego, New York on November 26, 1832 to Alvah and Vesta Whitcomb Walker. She was the fifth of six children (all but one of them girls). The family lived on a 33-acre farm, and Alvah Walker also did carpentry and served as a self-taught doctor for the surrounding area. Alvah was a freethinker and an abolitionist; the family house was a station on the Underground Railroad. And given that his five daughters all did farm work, he forbade them to wear corsets or any other tight-fitting clothing that would interfere with their circulation and ability to do physical work.
Mary received schooling first at home and then at a local seminary, and in 1852 was hired to teach school at a village five miles south of Oswego. Mary, unlike many young women of her era, was not content to teach until she married and then be a housewife. She saved up her earnings and, only four years after the graduation of Elizabeth Blackwell, the U.S.'s first female doctor, Mary applied to medical schools and was accepted to Syracuse Medical College in December 1853 for their standard course leading to a medical degree, 3 terms of 13 weeks each.
Syracuse Medical College was a school of the "eclectic" school of medicine, meaning it took from such disciplines as herbalism and homeopathy and disapproved of some traditional ("allopathic") medical practices of the time such as bleeding and purgation. Doctors with a more standard education often considered eclectic medicine to be quackery, though many of its ideas have found medical favor since then. However, Mary's unusual training would add to her gender as an obstacle to being taken seriously.
Her clothing was often an even bigger obstacle. She expanded on her father's anti-corset stance by adopting and adapting the Bloomer costume proposed by Amelia Bloomer (Mary may have heard of this locally; she lived less than 50 miles from the site of the 1848 Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention). Rather than the loose pants gathered at the ankle usually seen in the Bloomer costume, but thought by some to be suggestive of harem garb, Mary Walker wore straight-legged long pants under a calf-length skirt. She kept this type of outfit and made outspoken calls for women's dress reform for the rest of her life, even when other women's suffragists, including Amelia Bloomer herself, lasted only a few years at most before going back to floor-length skirts.
Indeed, when she married a medical school classmate, Albert Miller, in 1855, Mary wore trousers and a frock coat, and she followed another trailblazer, Lucy Stone, in keeping her maiden name (though at times she did use "Dr. Mary Miller-Walker"). The pair set up offices together in his hometown of Rome, New York. However, at some point, Mary found out that Albert was cheating on her -- she ordered him out of their house. They had separated by March 1861, and a prelimary divorce degree on grounds of adultery was granted to Mary that September. The divorce did not become final for nearly 5 years, possibly because the two had disagreements over it. Mary seems to have been the one pushing for the divorce, and her Civil War activities may have interfered with getting anything done to finalize the split. She later wrote, "To be deprived of a Divorce is like being shut up in a prison because someone attempted to kill you."
Mary practiced medicine on her own for a while and made friends with Lydia Hasrouck, a fellow dress reform advocate and editor of the feminist magazine Sibyl: A Review of the Tastes, Errors, and Fashions of Society. Lydia's magazine seems to have expanded the range of ideas that Mary had opinions on, and she began to give lectures as a sideline.
Someone from an abolitionist background probably followed the events leading to the American Civil War with great interest. No one at the time knew how long the war would last, though many on both sides thought it would be settled quickly and easily. The First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 helped everyone see that this would be a long and hard-fought conflict. Mary decided to go and offer her medical services to her country; she arrived in Washington, D.C. in October 1861. The city was still full of Bull Run casualties and doctors were in short supply. Mary spoke first to the Department of the Army's Adjutant General, Colonel Edward Townsend, offering to serve as an assistant surgeon to a regiment in the field. Townsend sent her to the War Department, which refused her request.
After that, Mary volunteered in a temporary army hospital housed in a wing of the U.S. Patent Office. Dr. J.N. Green, the surgeon in charge, seems to have been glad of her help, but could not give her anything but uncommissioned, unpaid volunteer status. Green wrote letters supporting her quest for an official medical position, but without any success. During this time, Mary started wearing a blue officer's tunic, trousers with gold stripes down the sides, and an army surgeon's green sash -- clothing that kept her from being mistaken for a nurse, but drew even more attention.
In January 1862, Mary went back to New York and earned a certificate in hydrotherapy from Hygeia College. She lectured and wrote from New York as well, but in November she went to General Ambrose Burnside's headquarters in Virginia. Her help was welcomed there; she also supervised the transport of wounded soldiers to cities where better care was available for them. However, Burnside was transferred, and Mary went back to Washington for much of 1863, where she did medical work as well as starting a boardinghouse for women who were in the city to find or nurse their soldier husbands. She was also a member of fundraising groups working to raise money for the wounded and their families.
Through all this, she kept trying to get an official position, and gained both supporters and opponents among Army soldiers and bureaucrats. Eventually, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton authorized her to report to the surgeon in charge of the Army of the Tennessee in Chattanooga, Tennessee, just over the state border from the recent Battle of Chickamauga. She arrived early in 1864, but one there she was forced to sit through an evaluation by a board of Army physicians. These doctors had traditional training and dismissed her eclectic views as ignorance. But Mary went over their heads to General George Thomas, "the Rock of Chickamauga," who made her civilian contract surgeon to the Fifty-Second Ohio Regiment. This was the first time she was paid by the Army for her services. She treated not only soldiers, though, but local civilians whose homes and farms had been ravaged by the battles and foraging soldiers around them.
She rode into the countryside alone at times, unarmed so that she would be treated as a noncombatant if she were stopped by Confederate soldiers. And this did happen in April 1864. (Most likely, these trips away from the army camp were not just for medical purposes, but also in hopes of gathering information on Confederate troop movements. Several pieces of correspondence and government records refer to her doing such spying, and unfortunately she may have been taken more seriously by the men around her as a spy than as a doctor.)
The Confederates kept Mary prisoner in Dalton, Georgia for a month or so before sending her to a Richmond, Virginia prison. Richmond newspapers remarked unfavorably on the "female Yankee surgeon," and how she wore "male costume - black pants, fitting tight, a jacket and short talma of black or dark blue cloth, but wore a dark straw Gipsy hat, that might be construed as announcing her sex."
After two months' captivity in Richmond, an eye infection laid Mary low, and she began working harder to get herself released. She made a more positive impression on Brigadier General William Gardner, in charge of Confederate military prisons, than she had on the papers, and she was exchanged in August 1864 for a Confederate. (She was reportedly very proud that she was exchanged "man-for-man" for a surgeon holding the rank of major.)
She spent some time recovering and did a few lectures before again petitioning for some Army work. Adjutant General Townsend, the first man she'd gone to when looking to work with the Army in 1861, now granted her the job of surgeon in charge of the Louisville Female Military Prison Hospital, as well as some back pay.
Mary did her best at the Prison Hospital, but many from both prison employees and prisoners (Confederate women suspected of spying) regarded a woman doctor as something disgusting, "a fiend in human guise," in one prisoner's words. Her medical supervisor, Dr. Phelps, and the prison's commandant, Lieutenant Colonel Hammond, praised her work, but it wasn't enough to relieve the difficulties. Mary requested a transfer after 6 months. She briefly worked at an orphan and refugee asylum in Tennessee before resigning from the army in June 1865. However, she continued to try for a commission as an army surgeon, eventually writing directly to President Andrew Johnson.
Johnson knew something of her history and consulted Secretary of War Stanton about her request, as well as the surgeon general and the judge advocate general. Eventually they concluded that she deserved some kind of recognition (but most likely, that an actual commission for a woman doctor would be too controversial, especially now that the war was over). So in November 1865, President Johnson signed the papers to award Dr. Mary Edwards Walker the Congressional Medal of Honor "for meritorious service."
Mary wore the Medal of Honor from the day she was presented with it to till the day she died. This was one more oddity in her costume to be reported in newspapers when she did lecture tours for the next several years (on more than one occasion being arrested in cities unfamiliar with her because she was wearing male clothing). She told her war stories, campaigned in favor of recognizing and rewarding nursing as a profession, and as always, spoke in favor of dress reform. In fact, she suggested in at least one speech that Confederate President Jefferson Davis be punished by being condemned to be treated as women normally were -- she specifically mentioned wearing a corset and hoopskirts and doing housework in a four-story home.
She also wrote two books, promoting her various ideas; Hit in 1871 and Unmasked, of the Science of Immorality, to Gentlemen by a Woman Physician and Surgeon in 1878. She practiced medicine in Washington, DC, and worked with women's rights groups, though even they often looked upon her as weird for her dress habits, and sometimes even considered her a liability to the women's rights cause. Mary clung to her clothing style, though, and is even credited with inventing the inside neck band on men's dress shirts to protect the skin from chafing from the collar button.
She also spent years trying to get a government pension because she rarely had much money. Lecturing probably brought in more than medicine. She retired to her family's farm, left to her by her father, in 1891, but developed a local reputation as an extreme eccentric. She still visited in Washington often for her various campaigns.
As late as 1914, when she tried to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, her clothes were reviled -- she was rejected by the New York chapter on the grounds that that it was a women's group and her clothes "repudiated womanhood." (The St. Louis chapter accepted her, though.)
In 1917, recuperating from a fall suffered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, the 85-year-old got bad news -- she was one of 911 Medal of Honor recipients whose awards were being revoked because when Congress was revising the medal standards to include only “actual combat with an enemy." Some of these other revoked medals were truly not given for any kind of distinguished service (555 were given in 1863 to the 27th Main Volunteers to induce them to stay in the service, for example); the review board also cited War Secretary Stanton's refusal to give Mary a commission and the Chattanooga doctors' board's negative evaluation of her knowledge as evidence that she was not deserving of the medal. Mary sent stacks of furious letters but the board would not reconsider, so she just ignored them and kept on wearing the medal, and the army did not push her to actually return it to them.
She died February 21, 1919, and was buried in her usual clothing, with an American flag over her casket at the funeral.
Since then, her story and a photograph have featured in an Arlington National Cemetery memorial to women in the military. A training facility for the Army Reserve's 334th Medical Group is named for her. In 1982, she was featured on a U.S. twenty-cent stamp. And on June 19, 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed papers to reinstate her Medal of Honor.
Mary Walker's grand-niece and a few other relatives had campaigned for this reinstatement. The Army Board of Corrections for Military Records stated that if not for her gender, Mary would have certainly been commissioned in 1861 and that she had shown "distinguished gallantry at the risk of life in the face of the enemy." Though some contrary views were expressed about the reinstatement, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker will always be remembered as the first (and at this time, only) female recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Source: Walker, Dale L., Mary Edwards Walker: Above and Beyond. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2005.