Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Mary Walker, M.D.

I researched Dr. Mary Walker years ago and used her along with a few other Victorian women whose stories I admired as a composite for my fictional young heroine in my young adult novel, UNDER THE GUNS.
Mary Walker grew up in rural Oswego, New York and graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855. Her parents raised her to regard corsets as an unhealthy form of dress. Later in life she adopted a style of reform dress, a short, fitted knee-length dress with bloomers worn beneath the skirt. She believed crinolines, petticoats and yards of long skirts to be dangerous and unsanitary.
She married young, but refused to assume her husband's last name. He was also a doctor who she'd met while in medical school. They started a joint medical practice that lasted thirteen years as did the marriage.
When the Civil War began, she volunteered as an army surgeon, but because she was female, she was only allowed to serve as a nurse. However, the nursing duties she performed were actually those of an assistant surgeon. Although she was the first female surgeon in the United States Army, she served as an unpaid volunteer.
She made her own army uniform, which consisted of a knee-length fitted dress, designed to look like a Federal Army frockcoat. Under this she wore trousers. This outfit caused her much ridicule.
While serving in enemy territory, she often crossed over the lines to lend assistance to civilians. She also reported anything she learned of military value to her superiors, causing her to be labeled a spy.
She was captured while in Rebel territory and taken as a prisoner-of-war. She spent four months in Richmond, Virginia's Castle Thunder. She was released in a prisoner exchange and took great pride in the fact that she, being a woman and only five foot tall was exchanged for a six foot tall Confederate major.
After the war, she received the Congressional Medal of Honor. No other woman before her had received that honor. It was rescinded in 1917 because Congress revised their standards to only award the medal to those in "actual combat with the enemy".
Mary refused to give it back and wore it proudly until she died two years later.
Now that's a heroine!
For a more in-depth account of the life of Mary Edwards Walker, M.D. read:
Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War by Elizabeth D. Leonard
W. W. Norton & Company ISBN 0-393-31372-7

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