Dr. Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919) was born on a farm in Oswego, New York in November 1832. She attended Syracuse Medical College, graduating in 1855. She was the only woman in her class of 1855, and only the second woman to graduate from a medical school in the United States.
Right after graduation she married a fellow student, Dr. Albert Miller, and together they started a medical clinic in Rome, N.Y. This venture proved to be unsuccessful, as the public was reluctant to having a woman doctor treat them. Their marriage also floundered. Albert and Mary separated in 1859 and eventually divorced in 1869.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Dr. Walker attempted to obtain a commission in the Army Medical Corps but was turned down. She then volunteered as an acting Assistant Surgeon, the first female surgeon in the U.S. In September of 1863, she was appointed Assistant Surgeon for the Army of the Cumberland. She was then assigned to the 52nd Ohio Infantry as Assistant Surgeon. It was during this assignment that she was taken prisoner and accused of spying; it is reported she often crossed lines to treat Confederate civilians in nearby areas, and she was apprehended while going south on one of these missions. Walker was imprisoned in Richmond's famous Libby Prison and four months later was exchanged along with twenty-four other Union doctors for seventeen Confederate soldiers.
Following the war, she was recommended for the Medal of Honor by Generals Sherman and Thomas, in part for her service at the first Battle of Bull Run (July 12, 1861). On November 11, 1865, President Andrew Johnson signed a bill approving it. Dr. Walker was the first woman to hold the honor, and remains the only woman to date. In 1917 Congress revised the standards for receiving the Medal of Honor to only those who engaged in actual combat. Along with 900 other recipients, Dr. Walker was ordered to return
her medal. She refused and continued to wear it until her death in 1919. President Carter signed a bill in 1977 restoring her medal posthumously.
She discussed her thoughts on love, marriage, divorce, and especially the physical restrictiveness of women’s fashion as a hindrance to physical and emotional health in her first book, Hit: Essays on Woman’s Rights (1871). (Walker’s parents, Alvah and Vesta, had raised Mary to eschew conventional women’s clothing and opt for practical apparel that allowed for freedom of mobility.) After the war she was an outspoken advocate for practical dress, temperance, woman’s rights, and women’s suffrage, although she grew to be at odds with her fellow woman suffragists as she opposed the Women's Suffrage Act – Walker believed that a woman’s right to vote was already guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Later in life she habitually wore men’s pants, frock coat, and top hat, which she was buried in upon her death in her home of Oswego, NY, in 1919.
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