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Mary Edwards Walker, Part I

If there is something that is never surprising to run into in the archives here, it is the story of yet another amazing woman overcoming adversity and accomplishing wonderful things. In looking through our digital collection to select particularly moving images for a project, I came across one story that really caught my attention.

Mary Walker, 1890 (The Legacy Center Archives and Special Collections)

Dr. Mary Walker, 1890

We have previously met Mary Edwards Walker briefly in another post, but upon further research, she does not cease to amaze and really deserves a more in-depth look into her life.

Mary Walker, 1866-1867 (The Legacy Center Archives and Special Collections)

Dr. Mary Walker in England, ca. 1866-67

It should be known that Ms. Walker was going to be something different simply by the family that she was born into. She was born on a farm in the small town of Oswego in upstate New York. She was the fifth daughter in her family and from the start her parents believed that all of their children, including their five daughters, deserved to receive a professional education.

Ms. Walker was born in 1832. I don’t know about you but when thinking about jobs that women held at that time, the profession of physician does not come to my mind. Apparently she felt the same way in her early life as she became a schoolteacher, just as her sisters before her did. Now that’s a respectable position for a woman to hold in the mid 1800s, was Mary Walker satisfied though? No. No she wasn’t.

In 1855 Dr. Walker graduated from Syracuse Medical School, which, like most other medical schools of that time, did not commonly admit women.

Now, being a first year medical student myself, I find studying medicine to be extremely difficult currently; go backwards about a century and a half and things only get more complicated. I can’t even fathom the struggle that Ms. Walker had to go through to not only attend but also graduate a medical school in the mid 1800s that so rarely accepted women. Let’s just take a second to appreciate that.

Mary Walker, 1887 (The Legacy Center Archives and Special Collections)

Dr. Mary Walker, 1887

After graduation Dr. Walker practiced briefly in Ohio before marrying another physician and opening a practice with him in Rome, NY. That unfortunately was short-lived as she accused her husband of infidelity and they separated while she ran the small practice on her own for a short period of time.

After Rome, Dr. Walker spent a year in Iowa, where she tried, and failed, to get a divorce. During this time she attended the Bowen Collegiate Institute and was later expelled for reasons that we can only speculate about.

When the Civil War began, Dr. Walker travelled to Washington, where she volunteered as a Union nurse in a temporary hospital. It was here that she helped to found the Women’s Relief Association. In 1862, Dr. Walker ventured to Virginia to care for the wounded and a year after was briefly appointed in Tennessee as a surgeon in an Ohio Regiment. After her dismissal from the position she continued to wear her officer uniform and ministered to southern families along the countryside. During this time period it was thought by the Confederate Army that she was acting as a spy for the Union side and she was captured as a prisoner of war for several months during the summer of 1864. After her return to the Union side through an exchange, Dr. Walker was finally contracted as an acting assistant surgeon for the Ohio 52nd Infantry.

Mary Walker, 1900 (The Legacy Center Archives and Special Collections)

Dr. Mary Walker, 1900

All of this is only half of the story. Dr. Walker has accomplished so much that just one post does not do her justice. Hang tight for the rest of the story soon!