Mary Edwards Walker was the One and Only Female Recipient of the Medal of Honor in American History

Mary Walker, more commonly known as Dr. Mary Walker, was a Victorian Era woman who was born ahead of her time. Some people might refer to Walker as one of America’s hidden historical treasures. Walker was not just a women’s rights advocate and abolitionist, but she was also a teacher, prohibitionist, surgeon, prisoner of war, author, and the first and only female Medal of Honor recipient. On top of all this, Walker was one of the first women in American history to earn a medical degree and start up her own medical practice.

Mary Edwards Walker began to make her mark in this world on November 26, 1832. She was the seventh and youngest child born to Alvah and Vesta Walker of Oswego, New York. Unlike most children in Walker’s time, her parents progressively raised their children and did not follow the traditional gender norms. In fact, Walker’s parents raised her and her siblings to be free thinkers and question the rules and regulations of society. Walker’s parents had a nontraditional way of parenting which definitely opened the door to their daughter’s sense of justice and spirit of independence.

A picture of Walker in London. In 1867, she toured the wards of the Hôtel-Dieu, in Paris, the first and oldest hospital in that city.

Education

During Walker’s childhood and young adult life, education occurred both at home and at school. While Walker’s time in school receiving an education was more or less traditional, her time at home was not. Part of the education Walker received at home was not to listen or be persuaded by gender roles. The females of the Walker household took part in hard manual labor, and the males could often be found cleaning the house, cooking, and sewing. Outside of the hone, Walker went to a one-room school, which her parents had started. Therefore, it was Alvah and Vesta Walker who founded the first free schoolhouse in Oswego during the late 1830s.

From the start of their family, Alvah and Vesta wanted their children to have the best education possible. They wanted their daughters to be just as well-educated as their sons. The girls did just this as Walker, and her two older sisters all received an education beyond the one-room schoolhouse. All three of the girls attended Fulton, New York’s Falley Seminary school. For Walker and her sisters, this school was no different than the education they received as a child. Like their parents, the Falley Seminary emphasized modern social reform with gender roles, hygiene, and education. For Walker, personally, her learning at Falley Seminary further influenced her ambition to defy the traditional gender roles society placed on people, especially women.

Dr. Mary Walker wearing her Medal of Honor. U.S. Army.

It was during her time in Falley Seminary when Walker started reading medical texts. Her father had many books on physiology and anatomy and, from a young age, Walker was interested in these books. It did not take long for Walker to determine that she wanted to go into the medical profession. The only problem was that she did not have the funds to go to a medical college. Therefore, after graduating from Falley Seminary, Walker began teaching. Once she had saved enough funding, she enrolled herself into Syracuse Medical College. As the only female in her class, Walker graduated with her medical degree in 1855.