Dr. Mary Edwards Walker
November 26 will mark the 190th birthday of a little known, feisty and fascinating human being. I know I’m supposed to be writing about words, but as folksinger Arlo Guthrie once said, “You can’t always do what you’re s’pose to do.”
I fell for Dr. Walker some years ago. I hope you might find her intriguing.
She was one of America’s first female medical doctors. In the late 1850s she opened her practice more than once, but failed miserably. People were under the impression that a woman couldn’t possibly practice medicine, so she had no luck attracting patients.
Her lack of professional success may have been affected by her strident insistence that the primary reason women “got the vapors” and fainted was the corsets that restricted their breathing. Another fashion-related opinion may have had something to do with it, too. She was among the Bloomerites, and scandalous as it was, she wore wool trousers — under her wool dress or skirt. Though it’s beyond the modern sensibility to comprehend it, Dr. Walker was arrested multiple times for those trousers.
When the Civil War broke out she wanted to do what she could for wounded soldiers, but it took two years of fighting with the US Army before she was allowed on the battlefield. Once there, she argued with the male doctors that they should embrace the newfangled practice of washing their hands between patients. This advice was not happily received. During free hours, she left the battlefield to treat injured civilians, whether northerners or southerners. After helping with an amputation in southern territory, Confederate forces captured her and she became a prisoner of war.
Four months later she was freed through a prisoner exchange and became the first female recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. It will not surprise the historians among you that 52 years later at the age of 85 she was stripped of the honor for nebulous reasons. She wouldn’t give the medal up, though, and wore it the rest of her life.
In her 70s and 80s her feistiness didn’t decline. She took to wearing men’s formal wear and fought with her fellow Suffragettes, arguing that there was no reason for a 15th amendment; the word men referred to all of humanity, and because of this, the Constitution already gave women the vote. All the Suffragettes needed to do was force Congress to accept the Constitution as it was written.
Remarkable. Absolutely remarkable.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Town of Oswego, Syracuse.com, biography.com, NIH,
AAUW, Darlene Stille’s Extraordinary Women of Medicine, & Goldsmith’s Civil War Surgeon & Medal of Honor Recipient.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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