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Drexel's Hidden Treasures: Mary Edwards Walker, pioneer of women in medicine

November 4, 2013

Mary Edwards Walker

Mary Edwards Walker, a graduate of Syracuse Medical School in the 1850s, was one of the first women doctors to have a degree. She was the sole female surgeon to serve in the Civil War, during which she was captured by Confederate soldiers and held prisoner for four months, and the first woman to receive a Congressional Medal of Honor for her medical services in the war. Today, she’s still the only woman to have received the special honor, which is the highest U.S. military award.

The Drexel College of Medicine Legacy Center collection holds a manuscript of an unpublished book written about Walker in the 1940s. The collection also has letters written to Walker and photos of her after the Civil War ended, when she became a lecturer and huge supporter of women’s dress reform.

And although she was a prominent woman in medicine, it’s her dress that most people remember her for. Walker would often say the traditional women’s clothing crushes the internal organs, “which I’m sure was true,” said Chrissie Landis from the Legacy Center.

“We have a lot of letters from her supporters and not-so-supportive people who agreed or disagreed with her ideas about dress reform,” Landis added.

But most of all, Walker has always served as an inspiration for women to go into medicine.

One of Landis’ favorite letters in the collection, she said, is from a woman who met Walker in the 1880s. She describes Walker as a “kind, little woman who did not hesitate to help suffering humanity regardless of creed or race.” At the end of her letter, she attributed her effort to obtain a nursing degree to Walker.

An exhibit of items from the Walker collection is on display outside the Legacy Center doors in the lower level of the new academic wing of the College of Medicine’s Queen Lane campus. A digital collection can also be found online.

Landis, who designed the Walker exhibit, said it was “so much fun.”

“There were so many interesting things that it was hard to narrow down exactly what we wanted to showcase and what story we wanted to tell,” she said.

Walker’s story is a story for everyone, Landis said, because it proves that someone who is determined and strong-willed can overcome any barriers. “I think that’s why so many young students love hearing about Walker,” she said.

The archivists from the College of Medicine are currently working on an interactive digital history project for middle-school and high-school students, with the aim to help learners analyze and work with primary documents. Landis and other archivists are testing stories with students to determine which ones would be best suited for the project. When Walker came up, it was a no-brainer.

“They loved Mary because she’s just so interesting and inspiring,” Landis said. “There are so many women in medicine that are prominent, it’s hard to choose one.”

Walker has definitely made the cut.