Author: Sara Habibipour
Mary Edwards Walker was born in Oswego, New York to parents who encouraged her to pursue an education. In 1855, she graduated as a medical doctor from Syracuse Medical College.
Dr. Walker went into private practice for a few years until the Civil War broke out in 1861. She wanted to join the Army as a surgeon, but wasn't allowed because she was a woman. So, she chose to volunteer for the Union Army.
Dr. Walker worked for free at a temporary hospital in Washington, D.C. She also organized the Women's Relief Organization to help the families of the wounded who came to visit them at local hospitals. In 1863, her medical credentials were finally accepted, so she moved to Tennessee, where she was appointed as a paid War Department surgeon.
However, a turn of events soon occurred. Dr. Walker was captured in April 1864 by the South and held as a prisoner of war for about four months. Luckily, she and other Union doctors were later exchanged in a prisoner-of-war swap for Confederate medical officers.
Aside from her wartime efforts, Dr. Walker was also an outspoken advocate for women's rights.
As the war raged on, feminists, such as Dr. Walker, fought for the ability to be able to wear clothing that enabled better mobility. Walker chose to wear what was known as the "Bloomer costume": a modified uniform made of a dress-and-trouser combination that had gone out of favor long before the war began. But, she didn't care -- she wore it anyway.
Dr. Walker eventually switched to wearing men's clothes entirely and was even arrested for impersonating a man several times. In her defense, she argued that she was given special permission by the government to dress that way.
In November 1865, having left government service for good, Dr. Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson, even though she was a civilian who had never been a commissioned officer in military service.
That civilian status is why Dr. Walker's medal was rescinded in 1917, two years before she died -- along with 910 others. Dr. Walker refused to return the medal, though, and continued to wear it until she died two years later.
Sixty years after that, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter restored the honor in her name, thanks to efforts made by her family.
She is the only woman to receive a Medal of Honor to date.