Thursday, July 23, 2015

Dr. Mary Walker, Surgeon

By Mercedes Graf

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker is the sole woman to have been awarded the Medal of Honor. That she received this prestigious award at a time when women’s roles were strictly circumscribed makes her especially significant. Walker, born in Syracuse, NY, to “free thinking” abolitionist parents, graduated from medical school in 1855 at age 23, when only a handful of women in the country were qualified medical doctors.

When the Civil War started in 1861, Walker traveled to Washington, DC, to offer her services as a physician to the Army. Hospital commanders, however, were not ready to accept a female physician on staff. Unable to find a paying position, Walker volunteered as a doctor at Indiana Hospital in Washington, DC. The medical officer in charge of the hospital, Dr. J.N. Green, was so desperate for help that he ignored Walker’s gender. She had graduated from a medical school, he said, and that was enough for him. However, he was unable to convince his superiors to pay her a salary. Walker worked as a volunteer for as long as she could afford to do so, gaining experience in military medicine, and then went to New York City where she earned a second medical diploma.

She then returned to Washington, hoping that her new qualifications would enable her to secure a commission as a medical officer with the Army, or at least a salaried position. When she was unable to find a position in Washington she went to the front lines, where she knew her services would be needed. She worked in a volunteer capacity at Warrenton, VA, and later at Fredericksburg, VA. She labored ceaselessly, receiving only a tent and food for her efforts. Without a commission, she had no status, which meant that her opinions and suggestions met with little respect. For example, she disapproved of the frequency of amputations conducted by Army physicians, believing some of them unnecessary. This attitude irritated her colleagues and did little to help her in her quest for a commission. Dr. Mary Walker advocated dress reform for women and frequently adapted men's clothing for professional and personal comfort and utility.

Finally, in early 1864, Walker was appointed a civilian contract surgeon to the 52nd Ohio Volunteers. This regiment, at winter quarters near Chattanooga, TN, was desperate for an assistant surgeon, the previous one having just died. Part of her responsibilities entailed caring for the surrounding civilian population. Courageously, Walker traveled to wherever she was needed, paying little attention to the line between Union and Confederate territory. On April 10, she took a wrong road, encountered an enemy sentry, and immediately surrendered. She was imprisoned in Richmond, VA, at a military prison named Castle Thunder. The prison was overcrowded and dirty. Many of the inmates were sick, but the authorities would not allow Walker to doctor them. Most of the food was spoiled, and Walker became ill. She was released in a POW exchange on Aug. 12, 1864. As a result of her incarceration, she suffered vision problems that later in life prevented her from practicing medicine.

On her release from prison, Walker accepted another position under contract as an Acting Assistant Surgeon with the Army. She was assigned to the Louisville, TN, Female Prison to care for the inmates there. The prison housed Confederate women held on suspicion of spying and other anti-Union activities. Here she quickly annoyed prison officials by trying to help the inmates as much as possible. Her attitude did not make her popular with the patients, however, who disliked Walker simply because she was a woman. Women themselves believed that they should not be doctors. Fiercely trying to protect their own status as ladies, they were offended by the pants and full, knee-length tunic Walker wore to work in. Calling Walker an “anomalous creature,” they refused to trust her or take the medicines she prescribed. Many wrote letters of complaint to prison officials in Washington asking for “a man doctor or none at all.”

After the war, President Andrew Johnson granted Dr. Walker the Medal of Honor for her “untiring efforts” on behalf of the government and her “devotion and patriotic zeal to sick and wounded soldiers both in the field and in hospitals to the detriment of her own health.” Johnson’s order also mentioned the hardships Walker had endured as a prisoner of war. Walker was delighted with the medal, and wore it constantly.

In 1917, two years before Walker’s death, the Medal of Honor Board removed Walker’s name and 911 others from the list of recipients. In an attempt to make the medal more prestigious, the Board rewrote the qualifications, so that the medal would be awarded only to those who distinguished themselves “in actual combat with the enemy, by gallantry or intrepidity, at risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty.” Since Walker had not engaged in combat, she was ineligible for the medal. Walker, living on her farm in Oswego, NY, simply refused to return her medal and continued to wear it until the day she died. In 1977, the Army Board of Corrections posthumously restored the Medal of Honor to Dr. Mary Walker, stating that her acts of “distinguished gallantry, self sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex,” made the award of the Medal of Honor to Walker “appropriate.”

The information found in this article comes from "A Women of Honor: Dr. Mary E. Walker and the Civil War" by Mercedes Graf published in Gettysburg, PA, by Thomas Publications in 2001.

Image: Dr. Mary Walker in 1913.



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