From the first moment that I read about this amazing physician, a woman well ahead of her time regarding social issues of her day, I adopted her as a role model for my own life in Army medicine. She was the first female Congressional Medal of Honor recipient for her selfless sacrifices on behalf of humanity during the Civil War. In truth, she spent her entire life in the service of others, and she championed many rights for women.
Born in 1832 in New York State, Dr. Mary Walker was the youngest of five daughters and a brother in her farm family. Her parents made sure that she received an education despite the sentiment of the day that higher education, was reserved for men. She was the only woman in her medical school class at Syracuse Medical College, graduating in 1855. She married a fellow physician in her class, Dr. Albert Miller, but she kept her maiden name as the couple began a private medical practice together in New York; however, this business endeavor was not ultimately successful due to the general anti-female doctor sentiment in the community. That did not stop her from continuing forward to the next milestone of her life.
When the Civil War began, she volunteered to serve on behalf of the Union Army as a civilian; however, she initially had to work as a nurse because the Army did not allow female surgeons. Later, she became the first female field surgeon (an unpaid position), and worked near the front lines of battle in the Battle of Fredricksburg, Chattanooga and the Battle of Chickamauga. Eventually, she took up a paid position as an Army contract surgeon and secured her place in history as the first female US Army surgeon.
Dr. Walker was fearless, and she was not infrequently found to be crossing the lines of battle to treat civilians. In the spring of 1864, she was captured by Confederate troops and spent time as a prisoner in Richmond, Virginia (accused of being a spy). She was released that summer in a prisoner exchange and went on to serve in the Battle of Atlanta.
Once the war was over, Dr. Walker was recommended to receive the Medal of Honor by Generals Sherman and Thomas, and in 1865, this was awarded to her by President Andrew Johnson for her service at the First Battle of Bull Run. In 1917, a major review and revision of the Medal of Honor Rolls was conducted such that only those with actual combat involving the enemy were included. Approximately 911 names were removed under the new rules. Dr. Mary Walker was one of those names. She was ordered to return her medal but declined to do so, and she wore her Medal of Honor proudly until her death in 1919 at age 86. In 1977, President Carter reinstated the Medal of Honor to Dr. Walker, a long overdue event. The following is the citation:
Whereas it appears from official reports that Dr. Mary E. Walker, a graduate of medicine, "has rendered valuable service to the Government, and her efforts have been earnest and untiring in a variety of ways," and that she was assigned to duty and served as an assistant surgeon in charge of female prisoners at Louisville, Ky., upon the recommendation of Major-Generals Sherman and Thomas, and faithfully served as contract surgeon in the service of the United States, and has 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; and Whereas by reason of her not being a commissioned officer in the military service, a brevet or honorary rank cannot, under existing laws, be conferred upon her; and Whereas in the opinion of the President an honorable recognition of her services and sufferings should be made. It is ordered, That a testimonial thereof shall be hereby made and given to the said Dr. Mary E. Walker, and that the usual medal of honor for meritorious services be given her.