Mary Walker earned her medical degree from Syracuse University in 1855, at a time when very few women became physicians. An abolitionist, she volunteered for service as a surgeon in the federal army during the Civil War, but she was turned down. Refusing the army’s offer to make her a nurse instead, Dr. Walker volunteered her services as a spy, but was turned down again. So, she began treating the wounded and sick as a volunteer civilian doctor, until ultimately the Army hired her as a contract surgeon, the first woman ever employed by the U.S. Army in that role. In April 1864 Dr. Walker was captured while behind Confederate lines. She was a prisoner of war for four months, until released in a prisoner exchange. For her services Mary Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor. She is the only woman in American history to receive the medal.
Mary Walker was a suffragist, prohibitionist, war hero, and pioneering physician, but it was her preference for traditional male clothing that earned her the most notoriety. She was arrested on numerous occasions for wearing men’s clothing. Once when asked why she wore men’s clothes she answered, “I don’t wear men’s clothes. I wear MY clothes.”
Mary Edwards Walker was born on November 26, 1832, one hundred ninety years ago today.