Dr. Mary Edwards Walker
American abolitionist, prohibitionist, prisoner of war and surgeon. She is the only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor.
The Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for military valor, is bestowed by the President in the name of Congress to individual service members or veterans for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty. There are three versions of the award: The U.S. Army Medal of Honor, the U.S. Air Force Medal of Honor, and the U.S. Navy Medal of Honor (which includes the Coast Guard and the Marine Corps).
The first medal of honor was given on July 12, 1862, and the medal has been presented to 3,505 recipients since then. But only one woman has ever been given the Medal of Honor. That woman was Dr. Mary Walker. She received the medal during the Civil War for her courage treating patients on the battlefield, and for her bravery as a Prisoner of War.
Mary Edwards Walker was born on November 26, 1832 in Oswego, New York. She was the fifth daughter of abolitionists Alvah and Vesta Whitcomb Walker. Her parents encouraged her to think freely, and allowed her to wear “bloomer” pants, instead of the skirts and corsets women were required to wear at the time.
Education was also very important to the Walker family. Mary’s parents started the first free school in Oswego, New York so their daughters would be just as educated as their son. Outside of school, all of the children helped with manual labor on the farm. After finishing at her parent’s school, Mary Walker and two of her older sisters attended Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York.
When Walker graduated, she became a teacher in Minetto, New York but she knew she wanted to become a doctor. She worked until she saved enough money to pay for medical school. Walker then attended Syracuse Medical College and received her medical degree in 1855. She was only 23. She became only the second woman to graduate from this college after Elizabeth Blackwell.
Shortly after she graduated, Dr. Walker married another medical school student Albert Miller on November 16, 1855. They started a private medical practice together in Rome, New York. However, the practice did not succeed for many reasons, but mostly because the public did not want to accept a female doctor.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Dr. Walker, then just 29 years old, wanted to join the Union’s efforts. She went to Washington D.C. but was not allowed to serve as a medical officer because she was a woman.
She decided to still serve as an unpaid volunteer surgeon at the temporary hospital set up at the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C. Dr. Walker worked there for free. But at that time the army would not allow female surgeons, so Dr. Walker was technically only allowed to practice as a nurse.
She also organized the Women’s Relief Organization to help the families of the wounded who came to visit them at local hospitals.
In 1862, Walker moved on to Virginia, this time to treat wounded soldiers near the front lines and treating the wounded at field hospitals throughout the state. She also wrote to the War Department in September of 1862 requesting to become a spy, but her request was rejected.
In 1863, her medical credentials were finally accepted by the Army, so she moved to Tennessee, where she was appointed as a War Department surgeon. She became the first female U.S. Army surgeon as a “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian). Her position was paid, and it was the equivalent of a 1st lieutenant or captain.
In April of 1864, Dr. Walker had just finished helping a Confederate doctor with a surgery when she was captured by Confederate troops as a spy. According to the National Library of Medicine, sources say Dr. Walker had been captured intentionally so she could spy for the North, but there is little evidence to support that claim. She was held as a prisoner of war for four months. While imprisoned, she refused to wear the women’s clothes provided to her. She wore men’s clothes her entire life because they were more comfortable and hygienic. Walker was released from prison in August of 1864 and became the assistant surgeon of the Ohio 52nd Infantry a month later.
Released from government contract at the end of the war, Dr. Walker lobbied for a brevet promotion to major for her services.
A brevet promotion is a former type of military commission conferred especially for outstanding service, by which an officer was promoted to a higher rank without the corresponding pay.
Secretary of War Stanton would not grant the request. President Andrew Johnson asked for another way to recognize her service.
So, in 1865 President Andrew Johnson awarded Dr. Walker the Congressional Medal of Honor for her work during the Civil War. She was the first, and to this day the only, woman to receive the award in American history.
A few years later in 1871, Dr. Walker published a book called Hit. In that book she advanced her radical ideas on topics from love and marriage and dress reform to woman’s suffrage and religion. This made her very popular to some popular, and even less popular to others.
In 1916, the Medal of Honor was taken away from Walker and many others after the government reviewed their eligibility. Although she was given the award by the President, she did not meet the new requirements to qualify for the award so it was legally stripped from her.
However, she refused to surrender her medal and Dr. Walker from wore every day until her death.
58 years later, in 1977, thanks to the efforts of her family and a Congressional reappraisal of her achievements, the honor was restored by President Jimmy Carter.
In addition to her work with the Army, she advocated for women’s rights. She famously wore pants and “bloomers” and advocated for “dress reform.” She was arrested in New Orleans in 1870 because she was dressed like a man. Dr. Walker responded by saying, “I don’t wear men’s clothes, I wear my own clothes.”
She also fought for suffrage and tried to register to vote in 1871, but she was denied. Dr. Walker then participated in politics by campaigning for the U.S. Senate in 1881 and running as a Democratic candidate for Congress in 1890. Although she lost both times, she testified in front of the US House of Representatives in support of women’s suffrage.
Despite the controversy surrounding her career and her politics, Dr. Mary Walker was proud of her accomplishments as a physician and an advocate for women’s rights. In 1897 she said, “I am the original new woman…Why, before Lucy Stone, Mrs. Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were—before they were, I am. In the early ’40’s, when they began their work in dress reform, I was already wearing pants…I have made it possible for the bicycle girl to wear the abbreviated skirt, and I have prepared the way for the girl in knickerbockers.”
Dr. Walker died in 1919 at the age of eighty-six from an unknown illness. She was buried in New York at the Oswego Town Rural Cemetery.
Army Nurse Corps CPT Elsie S. Ott.
Born in 1913, in Smithtown, New York. After High school she attended and graduated from Lenox Hill Hospital School of Nursing. Elsie joined the Army Nurse Corps in September of 1941 as second lieutenant. She serves in a few different duty stations before she is deployed to India.
It is during this deployment in India that Elsie participates in the first international air evacuation of patients from Karachi, India (Which is now Pakistan) to Walter Reed Hospital in D.C. During this time in WWII, we were in the early stages of air evacuations. The military was training personnel like surgeons, nurses and medics for these med evac flights, but nothing was officially set up yet. This flight in January of 1943 that Elsie is part of is the first of its kind.
Prior to this mission, Elsie had never flown before. This woman had no experience flying on an aircraft. What an interesting trip that must have been for her.
So, let’s look at this flight. On board we have the five patients, with issues ranging from tuberculosis to manic-depressive psychosis. A wide range here. On her team she has only one assistant which is a SSG medical tech, however this guy is recovering from some type of illness himself.
She was given 24 hours’ notice that this flight was happening. In preparing for this flight she was able to gather some blankets and a few other supplies, like bed pans and cots. But here is the kicker… the only medical equipment she has is a basic first aid kit. Had that been me, I would have thought that was a joke. Okay, what’s the catch? But you know Elsie must have been used to that. She just hops on board ad makes due.
After a week of flying, the aircraft makes it to Bolling Army Air Force Base in Washington, D.C.
This trip took so long because every time they stopped to refuel, they off loaded the patients at nearby hospitals so that they could receive necessary care and meals. Elsie was with them every step of the way.
Side note: one source I read stated that at the stops that didn’t have Army Air Force amenities, Elsie was required to pay for the meals of her and her patients out of her own pocket.
LT Ott knew that this trip was going to be important in the future of med evacs so she made sure to write everything down. The entire trip she recorded everything she thought the military would need to know, what to improve, what to look for. She had plenty of recommendations from her medical background on how to prepare the planes for this type of transport.
She made it a point to note that the tight skirt of her uniform was not practical for this work.
Elsie Ott’s very detailed after action review, (AAR) was instrumental in the development of air evacuations.
She becomes the first woman in the U.S. Army to receive the U.S. Air Medal for her role during the evacuation flight.
Once she is stationed back stateside again, she volunteers for the formal training as a flight nurse.
We talked before about how dangerous these medical transport planes were. If the planes carried military equipment or supplies, they couldn’t be marked or visually identified as medical or noncombatant aircraft.
Elsie was promoted to captain before she completed her career in 1946.
In 1965 she was chosen to christen a new type of air ambulance, the C-9 Nightingale.
She died in 2006 at the age of 93