It’s difficult to begin listing Mary Edwards Walker‘s achievements, because each are incredible in their own right. Let’s begin in 1855, when as a young woman, Mary graduated from Syracuse Medical College as a medical doctor. Bear in mind that this was the nation’s first medical school, and the only one to accept women alongside men. Mary happened to be the only woman in her class.
As if that weren’t beating the odds enough, she tried to join the Union Army as a medical officer after practicing for almost 10 years. Probably because of her gender, she was denied the position, but volunteered anyway as a nurse. For almost two years she worked tirelessly as a field surgeon near the front lines, braving the depressing realities of war. She was even taken as prisoner in 1864 after accidentally happening upon a group of rebels, dressed in full uniform. She was, however, traded for her skill as a surgeon to work in Kentucky.
Mary’s greatest claim to fame comes from her continued status as the only woman ever to have received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award, in 1866. However, in 1917 changes were made in the qualifications to receive the medal, requiring that the recipient must have been involved in combat, and Mary’s medal was revoked. Never mind that she couldn’t have been in combat even if she wanted to, and that she was practically next to it during the height of the war. That didn’t stop Mary, though, because, “She refused to turn the Medal of Honor back to the Army as requested and according to friends wore it proudly every day until her death in 1919.” (And Jimmy Carter reinstated her Medal in 1977.)
Mary had a knack for breaking tradition. The fact that she was always known by her maiden name is a testament to her forward-thinking and strong-willed nature. “As an older woman, she wore male pants, frock coat, top hat and carried a cane.” She was ahead of her time, and a beacon of hope for women’s rights movements to come.
Image of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker statue courtesy of the town of Oswego.