March is Women’s History Month! Today’s post comes from Holly Rivet, an archives technician at the National Archives at St. Louis.
Few women became physicians in the 1850s; fewer still served in the Civil War; and only one was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Dr. Mary E. Walker was born in 1832 in Oswego, New York, to an abolitionist family and graduated from Syracuse Medical College with a doctor of medicine degree in 1855.
At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the Union Army did not commission women surgeons, only nurses. Wanting to serve her country, but still wanting to work to her full capacity, Walker volunteered as an unpaid surgeon.
She began working as an assistant surgeon at the Indiana Hospital, an improvised hospital inside the U.S. Patent Office. In 1862 she treated the wounded at various field hospitals throughout Virginia. She was captured by Confederate soldiers in April of 1864 and released in a prisoner swap. It wasn’t until later that October that she became a paid contracted private physician with the Ohio 52nd Infantry with a salary of $100 a month. She ended this contract in June of 1865. The remainder of her life was devoted to the medical profession and the advancement of women’s rights.
On January 24, 1866, she was awarded the Medal of Honor by the Executive Order of Andrew Johnson. In 1917 Congress requested a review of cases of Medal of Honor recipients and rescinded 912, including Dr. Mary Walker’s. It was restored to her posthumously in 1977 at the behest of the Army Board of Correction of Military Records.
Documents chronicling her life can be found across the country at various National Archives and Records Administration locations. NARA at St. Louis holds her World War I Award Card, while correspondence petitioning for the restoration of her Medal of Honor is held at the Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum.
Her pension application is at the National Archives in Washington, DC, and is available online in the National Archives Catalog. Her portrait photograph, taken by Mathew Brady and Associates, is held at NARA in College Park, Maryland. It’s also been digitized and is available online in the National Archives Catalog.
The Oswego County Historical Society has custody of her Medal of Honor.
Learn more about Dr. Mary E. Walker at the National Library of Medicine website.