Back to Top Skip to main content Skip to sub-navigation

Paving the way for women in military medicine: Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

Old picture of Dr. Mary Edwards wearing her Medal of Honor A photo by Mathew Brady of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker circa 1866, shown wearing her Medal of Honor (Photo by: Courtesy of National Archives).

Recommended Content:

Military Medical History | Military Health Medal of Honor Recipients | Women's Health

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was the first woman to be appointed as an assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army, she is also the only woman to date to have received the Medal of Honor, the U.S. government's highest and most prestigious military decoration.

Born in Oswego, New York, on Nov. 26, 1832, Walker graduated from Syracuse Medical College with honors in 1855. She subsequently married Albert Miller, and they started a medical practice in Rome, New York, shortly thereafter.

At the onset of the Civil War, Walker, then 23, traveled to Washington seeking a commission as an Army surgeon or a position as a contract surgeon. Both requests were denied as there was no policy in place for hiring female physicians. She then volunteered as a nurse, but continued to request a commission as an Army surgeon. After three years of persistence, she was hired as a contract surgeon and attached to the 52nd Ohio Infantry.

Walker served at the first Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Fredericksburg, often near the Union front lines.

Army Maj. Gen. George Thomas and Maj. Gen. William Sherman, general of the Union Army, noted that Walker "...passed frequently beyond our lines far within those of the enemy and, at one time, gained information that led Gen. Sherman to modify his strategic operations as to save himself from a serious reverse and obtain success where defeat before seemed to be inevitable."

Walker's insistence on tending to injured civilians inside Confederate territory led to her being captured as a spy by Confederate forces near Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1864 after helping a Confederate doctor perform an amputation. She was held in a prison in Richmond, Virginia, for four months and commissioned as an acting U.S. Army assistant surgeon following her release.

Picture of a pocket surgical kit
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker’s pocket surgical kit, on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Pocket surgical kits were designed to be compact and customizable, allowing surgeons to carry the tools they found most useful on their person for small surgeries or emergencies in the field (Photo by: Matthew Breitbart, National Museum of Health and Medicine). 

Following her actions during the war, President Andrew Johnson awarded Walker the Medal of Honor for, “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.” Aside from being the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor, she is also one of only eight civilians to receive the award.

After the war, Walker served as assistant surgeon at a women's prison in Louisville, Kentucky, and as the head of an orphanage in Tennessee. She also became a writer and a lecturer, supporting issues including health care and women's rights.

In 1916, Walker's medal was rescinded with 910 others for there being "no evidence of distinguished gallantry." Walker refused to surrender her medal and died in 1919. In 1977, then-Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander Jr. ordered that her name be restored to the Medal of Honor roll.

Walker's contributions to military medicine served to open the door for all women serving throughout the Department of Defense and Military Health System today.

Walker's pocket surgical kit, which features the tools she used while working in the field, is part of the National Museum of Health and Medicine's historical collection and is on display at the museum.

Information for this article came from the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

You also may be interested in...

30 Years after Desert Storm, Military Medicine Evolving ‘Phenomenally’

Article
6/9/2021
Military health personnel surrounding an operating table

Thirty years after the Persian Gulf War, technical advances in military medicine are saving lives and improving post-trauma quality of life.

Recommended Content:

Military Medical History

Run Toward the Fire: My journey through mental illness

Article
5/21/2021
Military personnel posing with their children

Air Force Lt. Col. details her struggle with depression, anxiety and suicide ideation

Recommended Content:

Mental Health and Total Force Fitness | Women's Health Month | Women's Health | Mental Health Awareness Month

Service women: Plan for your future health care now

Article
5/13/2021
Graphic that has images of different women with the words "women's health transition training"

The online, self-paced Women’s Health Transition Training makes everything you need to know about VA women’s health services available anytime, anyplace.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health Month | Women's Health

3D Mammography 2019 Infographic 01

Infographic
4/26/2021
Infographic explaining TRICARE coverage of 3D mammography and other well-woman exams.

“Well woman exams Annual Mammograms Breast MRI Pap Smears Pelvic Exams HPV DNA Testing”

Recommended Content:

May Toolkit | Women's Health Month | Women's Health

Maternity Care and TRICARE 2020 nosidebar

Infographic
4/26/2021
Infographic explaining TRICARE coverage for pregnant women

“Pregnancy Care Did you know you are only allowed to change TRICARE plans during a Qualifying Life Event?”

Recommended Content:

May Toolkit | Women's Health Month | Women's Health

Womens Health Enterprise

Infographic
4/26/2021
Social media graphic for Women’s Health Week showing multiple female service members on a purple background.

“Women’s Health Week”

Recommended Content:

May Toolkit | Women's Health Month | Women's Health

Womens Health Week

Infographic
4/26/2021
Social media graphic for Women’s Health Week showing multiple female service members on a purple background.

“Women’s Health Week”

Recommended Content:

May Toolkit | Women's Health Month | Women's Health

Womens Health CheckUpDay Enterprise

Infographic
4/26/2021
Social media graphic for Women’s Check Up Day showing a female service member getting a checkup.

“Women’s Health National Women’s Checkup Day”

Recommended Content:

May Toolkit | Women's Health Month | Women's Health

Navy Pediatrician Rises from Humble Beginnings to Make History

Article
4/13/2021
Miliary health personnel wearing face mask bumping elbows

Navy Capt. (Dr.) Lynelle Boamah confidently stands with feet firmly planted atop two recent significant months.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health | Paving the Way for African Americans in Military Medicine: A Look Across Time

BAMC Women's History Month honors women past and present

Article
3/31/2021
Three military personnel, wearing masks, standing on a stage and holding an award

Women will always play a critical role within our military.

Recommended Content:

Sexual Assault Awareness & Prevention Toolkit | April | Women's Health

Women leaders say military health care offers limitless opportunities

Article
3/30/2021
Military personnel speaking through a microphone

Women military health leaders speak on way toward equity and limitless opportunities.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health | Brain Injury Awareness Toolkit | Brain Injury Awareness Toolkit

Historic observance celebrates the achievements of women

Article
3/25/2021
A flyer of three women in three separate pictures smiling

The DHA held a virtual observance—featuring a panel discussion on women’s history— in honor of Women’s History Month.

Recommended Content:

Brain Injury Awareness Toolkit | Brain Injury Awareness Toolkit | Women's Health

DHA implements standard practices to improve maternal outcomes

Article
3/24/2021
Military health personnel wearing face mask during medical training

DHA-PI 6025.35 provides guidance for implementation of a postpartum hemorrhage bundle at all MTFs providing obstetrical care.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health

Decide + Be Ready: supporting today’s modern service woman

Article
3/23/2021
Picture of three different women with the words "decide and be ready mobile app"

New women’s app ‘Decide + Be Ready’, helps today’s service woman make proactive decisions regarding their contraceptive decisions.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health | Medical and Dental Preventive Care Fitness

Women’s health emerging priorities series highlights mental health

Article
3/4/2021
A woman holding her hands near her face

Women’s mental health can be more affected by transitioning than men’s, speakers’ series attendees hear.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health | Total Force Fitness | Depression | Psychological Fitness
<< < 1 2 3 4 5  ... > >> 
Showing results 1 - 15 Page 1 of 6

DHA Address: 7700 Arlington Boulevard | Suite 5101 | Falls Church, VA | 22042-5101

Some documents are presented in Portable Document Format (PDF). A PDF reader is required for viewing. Download a PDF Reader or learn more about PDFs.