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

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...

Cervical Cancer Screening Available at NHB

Article Around MHS
8/9/2022
Military medical personnel in cancer screening exam room

Walk-in availability for cervical cancer screening – also known as a Pap test or Pap smear – will begin at Naval Hospital Bremerton’s OB/GYN clinic, Sept. 2, 2022.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health

Air Force Women's History: First Commissioned Female Physician

Article Around MHS
6/23/2022
Capt Dorothy Armstrong Elias sworn in

On March 14, 1951, Capt. (Dr.) Dorothy Armstrong Elias became the first woman physician sworn into the Air Force.

Recommended Content:

Our History

LRMC CNS Fuels Progression in Military Medicine

Article Around MHS
6/17/2022
military personnel in neonatal care class

Army Maj. Rebeccah Dindinger serves as a Clinical Nurse Specialists at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness & Combat Support | Women's Health

Expectant Moms Have Group Option for Prenatal Care

Article Around MHS
6/10/2022
Midwife helps expectant military mom during pregnancy

The San Antonio Market offers a group obstetric model for pregnant women at Brooke Army Medical Center.

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness & Combat Support | Women's Health

Women's History Month highlight: All-women medic team supports mission welcoming Afghan allies

Article Around MHS
4/5/2022
Military personnel taking a walk

In late August 2021, the Department of Defense issued a call for volunteers to support Operation Allies Welcome, the federal government’s effort to safely resettle Afghan refugees.

Recommended Content:

Our History

Air Force International Health Specialists promote peace through inclusion of women

Article Around MHS
10/13/2021
Medic prepare to lift a patient on a litter.

U.S. Air Force International Health Specialists are supporting the Department of Defense’s initiative to promote women’s safety, empowerment and vital contributions to global security.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health

USU Students Examine Civil War History to Understand the Future of Medicine

Article Around MHS
9/22/2021
Nearly 300 students from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences participated in a 30-year-old-tradition of marching through the battlefield of Antietam on Aug. 20

During the Battle of Antietam, Union Major Jonathan Letterman implemented his ideas for reshaping the Army’s Medical Corps, earning him the nickname the “Father of Battlefield Medicine.”

Recommended Content:

Our History | Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences

Air Force Women's Initiative Team champions women's health care

Article Around MHS
9/20/2021
Female Airmen stand at parade rest.

The members of the WIT’s Female-Specialized Health Care Programs have a vision to build an Air Force health care system that strengthens high quality women’s care.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health
Showing results 1 - 8 Page 1 of 1
Refine your search
Last Updated: March 26, 2021

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.