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...

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 To Improve Readiness | Brain Injury Awareness To Improve Readiness | 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 | Clinical Improvement Priorities for MTF Providers | Postpartum Hemorrhage

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

DOD initiatives address the sexual health of our military

Article
2/17/2021
Image of a bacterium

STIs are important to identify and treat because they can impact service members’ health and readiness, as well as their ability to perform their duties.

Recommended Content:

Armed Forces Health Surveillance Division | Health Readiness & Combat Support | Medical and Dental Preventive Care Fitness | Men's Health | Women's Health | Sexually Transmitted Infection Prevention

COVID-19 vaccine does not affect fertility, immunization experts say

Article
2/16/2021
Black and white photo of a couple holding hands

COVID-19 vaccination when pregnant or breastfeeding shows no harm, immunologists weigh in.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health | Coronavirus & the MHS Response | COVID-19 Vaccine Efforts | Coronavirus and the COVID-19 Vaccine

Decreasing cervical cancer – one HPV vaccine at a time

Article
1/7/2021
Image of medical personnel showing report to soldier. Click to open a larger version of the image.

Early detection and prevention methods are key to help women fight and prevent this form of cancer.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health | Total Force Fitness

National Army museum honors America’s Soldiers

Article
11/13/2020
Wall in the museum with pictures and interactive displays

The museum is a joint U.S. Army-Army Historical Foundation construction effort.

Recommended Content:

Our History

Transition support for servicewomen planning to leave the military

Article
11/10/2020
Three women in military uniforms standing together

As of today, the WHTT has supported more than 1,300 servicewomen to date.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health | Department of Defense/Veterans Affairs Program Office

Weed ACH hosted breast cancer awareness event

Article
10/28/2020
Woman in pink hat and shirt, wearing a racing number, speaking to an audience

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a chance to raise awareness about the importance of early detection of breast cancer.

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness & Combat Support | Health Readiness & Combat Support | Women's Health

Special care given to families experiencing stillbirth or infant loss

Article
10/23/2020
A couple standing in front of a wall covered in notes

The cot is specially designed to give parents extra time with their baby.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health | Children's Health | Men's Health

Proactive screening and detection help to battle breast cancer

Article
10/22/2020
Soldier standing in front of a colorful display with pink ribbon

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health

Weed ACH holds Pregnancy & Infant Loss Awareness month event

Article
10/22/2020
Group of people standing outside hospital

[I]t's important to acknowledge pregnancy and infant loss awareness events because it isn’t healthy for families to suffer in silence.

Recommended Content:

Children's Health | Women's Health

NH Bremerton relies on experienced nurse to help new moms

Article
10/16/2020
Military personnel gives nurse an award

"Navy Medicine has taken me from novice to expert over a 20 year career..."

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness & Combat Support | Women's Health | Patient Safety | Nursing in the Military Health System

Incidence of Sexually Transmitted Infections Before and After Insertion of an Intrauterine Device or Contraceptive Implant, Active Component Service Women, U.S. Armed Forces, 2014–2019

Article
3/1/2020
A copper intrauterine device.

Recommended Content:

Medical Surveillance Monthly Report | Women's Health
<< < 1 2 3 4 5  ... > >> 
Showing results 61 - 75 Page 5 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