Who Was Mary Walker?
Famed physician, feminist, women's rights activist and Civil War veteran Mary Walker is best known for becoming the first woman to receive the Medal of Honor (1865). She is also known for her work as an outspoken women's rights activist, for seeking to change the restrictive styles of women's fashions of her day and for refusing to be held back by her gender.
Early Life and Career
Born on November 26, 1832, in Oswego, New York, Mary Edwards Walker gained an early education at the Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York. Pursuing a career in a traditionally male field, she then enrolled at Syracuse Medical College, graduating with a Doctor of Medicine degree in 1855. Thereafter, she relocated to Columbus, Ohio, where she started a private practice. Returning to her home state not long after, Walker married fellow physician Albert Miller, and the couple moved upstate to Rome, New York.
Soon after the Civil War began in 1861, Walker began volunteering as a nurse, working early on at the Patent Office Hospital in Washington, D.C. She took a break from volunteering her services in 1862 to earn a degree from the New York Hygeio-Therapeutic College in New York City, but soon returned to the war effort. This time, she worked on the battlefield in tent hospitals in Warrenton and Fredericksburg, Virginia. In the fall of 1863, Walker traveled to Tennessee, where she was appointed assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland by General George H. Thomas, one of the principal commanders in the Civil War's Western Theater.
Receiving the Medal of Honor
In April 1864, Walker was captured and imprisoned by the Confederate Army. She was released that August, after being held in Richmond, Virginia, for several months. Following her release, Walker briefly returned to Washington, D.C. In the fall of 1864, she received a contract as an "acting assistant surgeon" with the Ohio 52nd Infantry and soon began supervising a hospital for women prisoners and then an orphanage.
Walker retired from government service in June 1865. Later that year, in recognition of her courageous war efforts, she was awarded the Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service, becoming the first woman to receive the honor.
Later Years and Death
After the Civil War, Walker lectured on such issues as dress reform and women's suffrage but did not support a proposed suffrage amendment, contending that the right to vote was already contained in the Constitution.
In an unfortunate turn of events, in 1917, the U.S. government changed the criteria for the Medal of Honor and withdrew Walker's medal, though she continued to wear it thereafter. She died two years later, on February 21, 1919, in Oswego, New York. Nearly 60 years after her death, in 1977, Mary Walker's Medal of Honor was posthumously restored by President Jimmy Carter.
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