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Dr. Mary Walker, Only Woman Ever Awarded the Medal of Honor

First Female Military Doctor Earned Medal of Honor for Service and Suffering

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Updated June 01, 2011
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman ever awarded the Medal of Honor, was a trailblazer decades ahead of her time. Born November 26, 1832 in Oswego County in upstate New York, as a child she displayed those characteristics of strength and independence that later led her into a career of 'firsts.' Walker was the first female military doctor in the US and the first female prisoner of war, held by Confederate troops from April-August 1864 at the height of the Civil War.

According to her great niece and biographer Ann Walker, Walker routinely fought gender bias in a man's world and resisted traditional attitudes towards women. After graduating from Syracuse Medical College in 1855 as the only woman in her class, she became one of a handful of female physicians in the US. When she married a fellow medical student, she refused to take his name, a scandalous act at the time. And when the Civil War broke out in 1861, Walker went to Washington, DC and applied to be an Army surgeon – a request the Medical Department swiftly denied.

Undaunted by the Union Army 's refusal to hire women as military doctors, she volunteered as a nurse, treating soldiers at the Battle of Bull Run in Virginia. When the Washington Patent Office was converted into a hospital, she worked as an assistant surgeon – yet another unpaid volunteer position. Her persistence paid off when she again requested a commission as an Army doctor and was hired in September 1863 to serve as an assistant surgeon with the 52nd Ohio Infantry. Walker was not yet 30 years old when she became the nation's first female military doctor.

Yet she was much more than that. Walker was also a Union spy, a crusader against alcohol and tobacco, and a bit of a cross-dresser according to an article from the Department of Defense:

During the war, she wore trousers under her skirt, a man's uniform jacket and two pistols. As an early women's rights advocate, particularly for dress reform, she was arrested many times after the war for wearing men's clothes, including wing collar, bow tie and top hat.
Nominated by the Army for her wartime service, in 1886 she received the Medal of Honor. Her citation -- signed by President Andrew Johnson – recognized her hard work and sacrifice:
Dr. Mary E. Walker..."has rendered valuable service to the Government and her efforts have been earnest and untiring in a variety of ways,"...[She] has faithfully served as contract surgeon in the service of the United States...devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health, and has also endured hardships as a prisoner of war four months in a Southern prison while acting as contract surgeon...[A]n honorable recognition of her services and sufferings should be made: It is ordered...that the usual medal of honor for meritorious services be given her.
Unfortunately, although Walker's Medal of Honor was legitimately earned and awarded, over the decades other medals were reproduced and could be sold to anyone. To reestablish the Medal as an award for combat valor above and beyond the call of duty, in 1916 the War Department reviewed all medal recipients. This attempt at reform led them to revoke 910 Medals in 1917, including Dr. Walker's, and request that rescinded medals be returned. Walker refused and continued to wear hers although wearing an 'unearned' medal was a criminal act. She died two years later in 1919 at age 87.

Five decades later, Ann Walker lobbied to have the Medal restored to Dr. Mary Walker. In a show of persistence that likely would have brought a smile of recognition and appreciation to her great aunt's face, Ann Walker's ongoing efforts through the 1960s and 70s was rewarded. As described by the American Forces Press Service:

A Nov. 25, 1974, letter from the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee read, in part, "It's clear your great-grandaunt was not only courageous during the term she served as a contract doctor in the Union Army, but also as an outspoken proponent of feminine rights. Both as a doctor and feminist, she was much ahead of her time and, as is usual, she was not regarded kindly by many of her contemporaries. Today she appears prophetic."

President Jimmy Carter restored Mary Walker's Medal of Honor on June 11, 1977. Today, it's on display in the Pentagon's women's corridor.

Sources:
"Dr. Mary Walker." Army Women's Museum at awm.lee.army.mil. Retrieved 31 May 2011.
"Dr. Mary E. Walker." NCO Matters, Association of the United States Army, www3.ausa.org. 20 June 2005.
Williams, Rudi. "Only Woman Medal of Honor Holder Ahead of Her Time." American Forces Press Service, U.S. Department of Defense.

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