She graduated as the sole woman in the 1855 class of the Syracuse University College of Medicine (now known as the State University of New York), joining the small number of women physicians in the nation. “The handful of institutions that admitted women to medical study in the early 1850s typically had separate curricula or only allowed women to attend selected lectures, often excluding anatomy because it was considered indecent for a woman to view a naked body and an embarrassment for male students to have females in attendance,” noted Sharon M. Harris in Dr. Mary Walker: An American Radical. Mary’s schooling spanned three 13-week terms, each costing $55, along with room and board of $1.50 per week.
It was at her graduation ceremony that she first met Arthur E. Miller. They stayed in contact after leaving college and then married on Nov. 16, 1855, Mary’s 23rd birthday. The couple omitted the word “obey” from their vows. “How barbarous the very idea of one equal promising to be a slave to another, instead of both entering life’s great drama as intelligent, equal partners!” Mary wrote.
Mary also kept her last name. She and Arthur settled in Rome, NY, and opened a joint practice under a sign which read, “Miller and Walker, Physicians.” They had separate exam rooms and separate clientele. Mary often drove a horse and carriage to make house calls on her patients, primarily women and children.
Despite daily harassment, Mary’s dedication to dress reform was steadfast. When she’d been chased by the farmer, her style was a shorter dress over long trousers. Over the years, the skirt portion became shorter or smaller until she abandoned it altogether for pants more commonly worn by men.
Trouser-wearing women of the day were often called “Bloomers,” named after Amelia Jenks Bloomer. Amelia, the first woman to own and operate a newspaper for women—and a friend of Mary’s—frequently wore “Turkish-style pantaloons.” Bloomers were often criticized, even by other women’s rights activists who felt the public protest and ridicule of the clothing was a distraction from the movement’s other goals. Wearing trousers attracted too much attention to the body of a woman, they argued, rather than her political state.
The Supreme Court of the State of New York granted Mary a divorce from Arthur in 1861, citing Arthur’s infidelity, but it was 1866 before the legal proceedings were settled entirely. Divorce was still exceptionally rare. It was only 20 years prior that married women in New York were granted any legal right to their own property in a marriage, or in leaving it.
On April 12, 1861, successionist Confederate soldiers opened fire on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the opening volley of the United States Civil War. Fierce patriot and abolitionist Mary immediately reported to Washington, D.C. to join the fight. She was summarily rejected from a paid medical position because she was a woman, so she served as an unpaid volunteer in the temporary hospital set up in the Patent Office. As the Union Army didn’t allow for female doctors, she could only practice as a nurse.
Working alongside male doctors, she began to question their reliance on amputation. She often stayed silent, very aware her presence was precarious, but she began to examine wounded soldiers herself. “In almost every instance, I saw amputation was not only unnecessary, but to
me it seemed wickedly cruel,” she said.
She served throughout the duration of the war. She modified her Union uniform to be her more comfortable style of trousers with a short dress, and carried with her a letter from Dr. J.M. Mackenzie, verifying her training and education. “To whom it may concern,” he wrote, “I am happy to bear testimony to the moral worth of Miss Walker who is a graduate of Syracuse Medical College and is well versed in the science of medicine and whose unbounded patriotism and love of humanity prompts her to seek a position where she can be useful…” This assertion of her “moral worth” was necessary as many of the generals and officers mistrusted this woman who tromped through mud to help fallen soldiers. More than one suspected her of being a spy.
Mary continually sought an official and paid position with the Union Army. She wrote to Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, in November 1863, requesting the appointment of “first Assistant Surgeon.” Upon rejection, Mary turned her petition to President Lincoln. She insisted she was being denied based “solely on the ground of sex” and expressed desire “for a surgeon’s commission with orders to go whenever and wherever there is a battle.” The president denied her request, replying that he could not meddle in the Army’s Medical Department.
Finally, over two years into the war, she was granted the title of “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian).” This secured for her a lieutenant’s salary of $80 a month. She was sent to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to serve the 52nd Ohio Regiment. Cate Lineberry wrote for The New York Times, “The previous assistant surgeon had recently died, and the men camped in winter quarters were in dire need of help. The civilian population also needed medical assistance, and Walker was soon crossing enemy lines, traveling throughout the dangerous countryside to treat wary patients who weren’t sure what to make of a female doctor.”
Here, the suspicion that Mary was a spy became a reality: Her status as a civilian and her unusual presence as a woman allowed her greater unfettered movement. While on her missions to treat her patients, she also gathered information about the movement and locations of Confederate troops. Union generals noted that Mary "...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."
In April 1864, the 52nd rode out. Mary stayed back to care for injured civilians before following alone on horseback. She was then apprehended by the Confederates and taken prisoner to Castle Thunder near Richmond, Va. This tobacco-warehouse-turned-prison was known for the brutality of its guards.
Of Mary, a Confederate captain wrote, “[The crowd was] both amused and disgusted... at the sight of a thing that nothing but the debased and depraved Yankee nation could produce.... [She] was dressed in the full uniform of a Federal surgeon...not good-looking and of course had tongue enough for a regiment of men.”
After four months, Mary was released as part of a “man for man” swap to return 14 imprisoned physicians—both Union and Confederate—to their armies. Her health would never fully recover from her time at Castle Thunder, but she quickly returned to work. She requested and received a station caring for the female prisoners of war imprisoned in Louisville, Ky. With this post, she became the U.S. Army’s first female surgeon and earned $100 a month. She found this job frustrating, however, as both patients and other doctors questioned her care, so after only a few months, she transferred to the Clarksville, Tenn. Refugee Home to treat wounded soldiers once more.
On April 8, 1865, the Confederate army surrendered at the Appomattox Courthouse, finally ending the U.S. Civil War. Mary returned to New York State. Later that same year, Mary received the Medal of Honor from President Andrew Johnson. The president said Mary “has devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health, and has also endured hardships as a prisoner of war.”
After the war, at only age 33, Mary’s health was greatly diminished and her eyesight failing, the lingering impact of her time at Castle Thunder. Her spirit, however, was unfazed. She took up work as an activist and writer. In 1868, she sued the Washington Election Board, demanding the right to vote as a citizen of the United States. In 1871, she published Hit: Essays on Women’s Rights, and in 1878, Unmasked, or the Science of Immorality: To Gentlemen by a Women Physician and Surgeon. Though limited by a Victorian perspective on sex and sexuality, these books nevertheless explored radical feminist concepts such as women keeping their maiden names, compensation for domestic work, and equity in divorce.
According to Dr. Mary Edwards Walker: Civil War Surgeon & Medal of Honor Recipient by Bonnie Zucker Goldsmith, Mary’s father died in 1880, leaving the family’s Oswego farm to Mary. The farm itself was no longer profitable and such a grounded lifestyle no longer worked for the light-footed Mary, who traveled frequently to speak at feminist and suffrage events. Older sister Aurora, herself a wealthy widow, moved back to the farm to live with Mary. Aurora paid bills and ran the farm during Mary’s absences. After Aurora’s death, Mary’s other sisters and their husbands helped pay for Mary’s necessities.
Bonnie wrote, “As she grew older, few people remembered Walker’s war service or her leadership in the women’s rights movement. People in Oswego gradually saw her as an odd, rather quarrelsome old woman in men’s clothing. Neighbors recalled the large ‘No Smoking’ sign in her house.”
The Nov. 8, 1880 issue of the Oswego Palladium recounted the story of “Dr. Mary Walker’s Vote.” The short blurb described Mary “at the polls of the first election district in Oswego Town,” stepping up to offer her vote. “The inspectors said that she was not a legally qualified voter and they could not receive the ballot. She insisted on her right to vote.”
The paragraphs puzzled over her clothing, of course. “Some pert young fellow in the crowd said if she was going to vote, they might as well dress up all their women folks in men’s clothes and bring them down and vote them.”
“‘I don’t wear men’s clothes,’ retorted Dr. Walker, sharply. ‘I wear my own clothes.’”
She was frequently arrested for “impersonating a man.” At one such hearing, she asserted her right “to dress as I please in free America on whose tented fields I have served for four years in the cause of human freedom.” She ran for Congress in 1890 and for Senate 1892. Both campaigns were, of course, unsuccessful. Of her activism, Mary said,