Skip to main content

Military Health System

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

Image of 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:

Our 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...

Introducing Contraceptive Care Clinics

Video
11/23/2022
Introducing Contraceptive Care Clinics

Walk-in contraceptive services are now available at military hospitals and clinics. No referral or appointment is required. Check with your local military hospital or clinic to see if walk-in appointments are available. Learn more at health.mil/womenshealth.

Recommended Content:

Walk-In Contraceptive Services Toolkit | Women's Health | Contraceptive Care Q&A | Contraceptive Care Toolkit | Reproductive Health Toolkit

U.S. Air Force Provides Information for Aircrew Considering Flying During Their Pregnancy

Article Around MHS
11/14/2022
U.S. Air Force Maj. Molly Sexton conducts pre-flight inspections

In April 2022, the U.S. Air Force issued a clarification of policies pertaining to aircrew during pregnancy. The policy recognized the need to provide aircrew, commanders, and health care professionals greater awareness of and transparency around the process for submission and review of waivers to fly during pregnancy.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health

MHS Minute | October 2022

Video
11/9/2022
MHS Minute | October 2022

This MHS Minute focuses on the contraceptive care services available to service members and beneficiaries. Learn more by visiting: https://tricare.mil/birthcontrol and https://www.health.mil/Military-Health-Topics/Total-Force-Fitness/Preventive-Health/Womens-Health/Contraceptive-Care-QnA Access communications products at https://www.health.mil/Military-Health-Topics/MHS-Toolkits/Contraceptive-Care-Toolkit

Recommended Content:

Contraceptive Care Toolkit | Women's Health

Murtha Cancer Center Hosts 2022 Breast Cancer Summit

Article Around MHS
11/7/2022
Military medical personnel performing mammogram

The John P. Murtha Cancer Center at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center hosted its 2022 Breast Cancer Summit virtually Oct. 26. The summit is held annually during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October.

Recommended Content:

October | Women's Health

History of Navy Medicine's Research and Development Global Enterprise

Article Around MHS
11/2/2022
Historic image of the Naval Medical Research Institute

Before there was the Naval Medical Research Center (NMRC) there was the Naval Medical Research Institute (NMRI).

Recommended Content:

Our History | Research and Innovation

USS Gerald R. Ford’s Commitment to Women’s Health

Article Around MHS
11/2/2022
U.S. Navy Seaman 1st Class Cassandra Styles participates in a mass casualty drill

One in eight women will face cancer in their life. Additionally, breast cancer has a 99 percent survival rate if detected in early stages and a 29 percent survival rate if detected late. U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Samuel Douglas, Ford’s surgeon, offers a service in identifying breast cancer in the early stage for women aboard Ford. Douglas’ service is just one of many that Ford provides.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health

Walk-in Contraceptive Services Required at Hospitals and Clinics

Article
11/1/2022
Five people wearing masks look at the camera.

Walk-in contraceptives services help service members with convenience of one-day, no appointment care, and help the military with readiness.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health | Contraceptive Care Q&A | Reproductive Health Q&A

FAQs for Reproductive Health Care

Fact Sheet
11/1/2022

Frequently Asked Questions about reproductive health care. TRICARE has coverage for both medical and pharmacy benefits and includes a list of covered and non-covered services.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health | Contraceptive Care Q&A | Reproductive Health Q&A | Contraceptive Care Toolkit

Born in Harm's Way: The Advent of Navy Medicine in the Revolutionary War

Article Around MHS
10/21/2022
The Bonhomme Richard vs. HMS Serapis infographic

The U.S. Navy recognized Oct. 13 as its official birthdate. It was on this day in 1775 that the Continental Congress authorized the construction of the first Navy ships as well as a special committee to oversee the administration of this service.

Recommended Content:

Our History

DOD Announces Effort to Ensure Reproductive Health Care

Article Around MHS
10/20/2022
TRICARE covers a full range of contraceptive methods, regardless of which health plan you have. And recent changes to TRICARE policies help make sure you’ll have easy, convenient, and timely access to contraceptive services.

Today, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III announced the Department will take all appropriate action, within its authority and consistent with applicable federal law, as soon as possible to ensure that Service members and their families can access reproductive health care and health care providers can operate effectively.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health

NMRTC Bremerton Thinks Pink for Breast Cancer Awareness

Article Around MHS
10/18/2022
Military personnel raising awareness for breast cancer

From rose to fuchsia to salmon, with October designated as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Navy Medicine Readiness Training Command Bremerton’s staff members donned pink attire to raise awareness for the annual breast cancer campaign.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health | October

Contraceptive Care

Video
10/4/2022
Contraceptive Care

Did you know that TRICARE waived copayments and cost-shares for medical contraceptive care? Learn more at www.tricare.mil/birthcontrol.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health | Contraceptive Care Toolkit

TRICARE Offers Contraceptive Care to Support You, Your Family, and Your Readiness

Article
9/30/2022
TRICARE covers a full range of contraceptive methods, regardless of which health plan you have. And recent changes to TRICARE policies help make sure you’ll have easy, convenient, and timely access to contraceptive services.

Whether you’re a service member or a TRICARE-eligible family member, contraceptive care plays a key role in your overall health, wellness, and quality of life. It also supports your individual and family readiness.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health | Contraceptive Care Toolkit

Dedicated Korean War Navy Medic Worked “Feverishly” to Save Lives

Article
9/22/2022
Profile photo of a sailor

U.S. Navy Hospitalman Francis Hammond was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor for selflessly saving lives and risking his own during the Korean War.

Recommended Content:

Our History

New Army Policy Better Enables Victims to Report Sexual Assault

Article Around MHS
8/19/2022
Military personnel at Sexual Assault Prevention Program

A new policy recently implemented by the Army is designed to help remove possible barriers that may prevent Soldiers from reporting sexual assault.

Recommended Content:

Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention | Women's Health
<< < 1 2 3 4 5  ... > >> 
Showing results 1 - 15 Page 1 of 7
Refine your search
Last Updated: March 26, 2021
Follow us on Instagram Follow us on LinkedIn Follow us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter Follow us on YouTube Sign up on GovDelivery