Skip main navigation

Military Health System

Clear Your Browser Cache

This website has recently undergone changes. Users finding unexpected concerns may care to clear their browser's cache to ensure a seamless experience.

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).

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...

Article Around MHS
Dec 15, 2023

Passing the Guidon: A Ceremony of Leadership Transition at Uniformed Services University's Change of Command

Uniformed Services University's Brigade Commander U.S. Army Col. Patrick Donahue relinquished command to U.S. Army Col. Albert Kinkead on Dec. 1, 2023, at the change of command ceremony in the university's Rice Hall. (Photo by Tom Balfour/Uniformed Services University)

Uniformed Services University's Brigade Commander U.S. Army Col. Patrick Donahue passes the guidon to U.S. Army Col. Albert Kinkead, symbolizing a change of command and celebrating Donahue's distinguished 30-year career, as the university looks forward to a new chapter under Kinkead's leadership.

Article Around MHS
Dec 11, 2023

Florida Guardsman Receives U.S. Surgeon General’s Highest Civilian Honor

In this time of unprecedented global health challenges, frontline responders like U.S. Air Force Maj. Kevin Tipton stand out as beacons of hope and resilience. Tipton, a critical care nurse practitioner with the 125th Fighter Wing of the Florida Air National Guard, received the Surgeon General’s Medallion from Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, the U.S. ...

Article Around MHS
Nov 20, 2023

The Madness We Survive

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Matilyn Million, 6th Medical Support Squadron laboratory technician, stands next to her coworkers during a chemotherapy appointment in Tampa, Florida, on Aug. 21, 2023. Million was diagnosed with stage III Hodgkin’s lymphoma in March 2023. She completed her 12th and final chemotherapy treatment on Sept. 18, 2023, and is currently cancer free. (Courtesy Photo)

A renewed spirit to resume the life she previously had consumed U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Matilyn Million as she closed her most difficult chapter. On Sept. 18, 2023, Million underwent her 12th and final chemotherapy treatment in Tampa, Florida.

Article Around MHS
Nov 20, 2023

Armed Services YMCA Recognizes U.S. Army “Angel of the Battlefield”

The U.S. Army recipient of the 2023 Armed Services Angel of the Battlefield award is U.S. Staff Sgt. Ta'Quesha Abson, currently assigned to the Medical Readiness Brigade, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. (Photo by Ronald Wolf, U.S. Army Medical Command)

Each year the Armed Services YMCA presents the “Angel of the Battlefield Award” to a heroic enlisted medical professional from each branch of the Armed Services. For 2023, the Army recipient of this award was U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ta'Quesha Abson, currently at the Medical Readiness Brigade, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Article Around MHS
Nov 1, 2023

Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Champions Women's Health Care Options Using Minimally Invasive Hysterectomy Surgery

Dr. Candice Jones-Cox, the Women's Health Services director at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center is all smiles after becoming the first surgeon in the Department of Defense medical community to perform a robotic minimally invasive endoscopic surgery. (Photo by Ricardo Reyes/Department of Defense)

When you meet Dr. Candice Jones-Cox, director of the Women's Health Services at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, you will learn that she's a fierce patient advocate and a meticulous surgeon, passionately learning cutting-edge techniques to adapt to an ever-changing medical landscape. She's an obstetrician-gynecologist, highly adept at ...

Article Around MHS
Oct 19, 2023

Lights, Camera, Ultrasound! Uniformed Services University Nursing Students Train Using High-Tech Simulation Theater

The Uniformed Services University students from the family and women’s health nurse practitioner program attended the university’s Wide-Area Virtual Environment at the Simulation Center for the first time in Oct. 2023. (Photo by Tom Balfour, USU)

Military students from the Uniformed Services University conducted immersive medical team training in the university's Wide-Area Virtual Environment. The theater is a a state-of-the-art 3D immersive reality facility that simulates various scenarios, replicating environments from war zones to medical emergencies, to prepare them for real-world medical ...

Article Around MHS
Oct 4, 2023

Stemming the Tide: Navy Medicine and the Egyptian Cholera Epidemic of 1947

Over three months, cholera spread across 2,270 towns and villages in Egypt killing over half of its victims. According to one estimate over 20,000 Egyptians died of cholera. (Graphic by Andre Sobocinski)

On September 21, 1947, a man was admitted to the Al-Qurayn (El Korein) Hospital in Egypt vomiting profusely and suffering severe diarrhea. Within hours, he was dead. The attending physician on duty first suspected food poisoning before 11 additional patients were admitted with identical symptoms. Their diagnosis was cholera, a deadly bacterial disease ...

Skip subpage navigation
Refine your search
Last Updated: March 06, 2024
Follow us on Instagram Follow us on LinkedIn Follow us on Facebook Follow us on X Follow us on YouTube Sign up on GovDelivery