Among the 3,500+ Medal of Honor awards earned by multitudes of brave servicemen in the American armed forces since the Civil War, only one woman has been granted the prestigious honor: Meet Mary Edward Walker, most commonly known as Dr. Mary Walker.

A contract surgeon, Walker devoted her life to treating the wounded soldiers of the US Army throughout the Civil War and later helped define the significance of having medical professionals on the battlefield. However, she faced quite a hurdle and, for years, fought for a place in the Army as a surgeon, which, at that time, didn’t allow women.

Despite pushing through the boundaries, Walker remained steadfast in her dedication to serving her nation and paving the way for American women with the same fervor to become part of the military. Her efforts were all worth it, and in the end, despite her medal being briefly rescinded in 1917 (just two years before her death), President Jimmy Carter restored it 60 years later.

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. Image from

Progressive Upbringing

Born on 26 November 1832 to a progressive household—that encouraged independence, education, justice, and above all, women’s rights—Walker grew up in Oswego, New York, alongside her supportive parents and six older siblings. Embracing her parents’ nontraditional beliefs, she passionately pursued her education, and by 1855, Walker graduated from Syracuse Medical College as a medical doctor. She was the only female in her batch to do so.

She went into private practice shortly after, until the Civil War broke out in 1861, when she eagerly wanted to join the cause. Walker aspired to be a surgeon for the Army but, to her dismay, was met with disapproval. Why? Because she was a woman. Instead, they offered her to be a nurse, but Walker didn’t want that as she was vastly overqualified for the position.

If you think she’d go home after receiving a rejection, you’re wrong. Walker went on to volunteer her services for the Union Army instead, hopping from one makeshift hospital to another—saw action during the First Battle of Bull Run. In addition, Walker founded a Women’s Relief Organization to accommodate families of the wounded.

Pioneering for Women in the Army

Though without regular pay, Walker continued to dedicate her services and treated severely wounded soldiers near the front lines. Finally, in 1863, she was appointed a paid position equivalent to a lieutenant or captain in the Army as the first woman assigned as a War Department surgeon. She also served as a civilian-contracted assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry. During her service, the fearless physician often crossed battle lines into enemy grounds to treat civilians.

What’s so badass about this is that Walker does this often alone, with an underlying agenda of intel gathering. She’d snoop around, eavesdrop for any information on troop movements from the enemy, and bring this information back to her commanding officer. Her luck eventually ran out, and she was captured by Confederate forces in the late spring of 1864. Walker never admitted to the accusations of espionage.