Dr. Mary Walker Wednesday #4

This is the fourth in my Dr. Mary Walker Wednesdays series. Each week I’ll post the first sentence of a new chapter, along with an image (or two) that relates to material in the chapter. This week features Dr. Walker’s medical work in the field, caring for sick and wounded soldiers. Since this first sentence is short, I’ve included a couple extra.

Chapter Four: Field Surgeon

Dr. Mary Walker still could not secure a commission.

[In November 1862, she decided General Ambrose Burnside’s sick and wounded men at Warrenton, Virginia, needed help, so she went.]

Carrying with her a blank book for keeping track of the names of patients, Dr. Walker found some men on the floor of an old house, many suffering the effects of typhoid.

(General Burnside and staff at Warrenton, 1862)

[In December] Dr. Mary Walker volunteered at Lacy House in Falmouth, a behind-the-lines station where soldiers received treatment before being sent on to Washington.

(Smithsonian Institution)


Dr. Mary Walker Wednesday #3 (plus a little bonus)

This is the third in my Dr. Mary Walker Wednesdays series. Each week I’ll post the first sentence of a new chapter, along with an image (or two) that relates to material in the chapter. This week features Walker’s medical work in the nation’s capital. And since we’re all thinking a lot about containing the spread of disease, I’ve added some bonus content from the book that explains how Americans dealt with this during the Civil War.

Chapter Three: Volunteer Surgeon

Dismissed by the secretary of war, Dr. Mary Walker searched Washington, DC, for a position at one of the new military hospitals.

(both images from the Smithsonian Institution)

Dr. Walker volunteered her services at the Indiana Hospital, situated inside the US Patent Office Building. One of her primary responsibilities was to perform pre-admittance examinations of patients to make sure they did not have smallpox. “Patients were daily brought in ambulances to the west sidewalk of the Patent Office Building,” she later wrote. Dr. Green, the physician in charge, would send for her “to come down and examine the cases so that no cases of possible smallpox might be taken up there” to the hospital ward.

A viral infection, smallpox spread through face-to-face contact via coughing and sneezing. Fever and body aches were followed by a red rash in the mouth and on the tongue, culminating in a pustule rash on the rest of the body. Three out of every ten people who caught it usually died. A successful vaccination had been developed, but it was not widely used in the early 1800s. During the Civil War, desperate soldiers fashioned their own vaccine, taking pus from an afflicted compatriot and scratching it into their skin. Their limited knowledge made this a high-risk proposition.

Doctors like Mary Walker managed to contain smallpox during the war. Pure, unadulterated vaccines reached enough soldiers to prevent an epidemic, but not enough to eradicate the disease. Quarantine, the primary method Walker relied on, also helped to stem the contagion.

Next week’s entry will provide a glimpse of some of Mary Walker’s other wartime activities.

Stay safe and stay healthy.


Dr. Mary Walker Wednesdays

Getting ready to launch a new book can be a bit nerve-racking, even in the best of times. I don’t think it’s too dramatic to point out that these are not the best of times. I hope everyone is staying safe and healthy, and I am very grateful to all the health care professionals, grocery store workers, public safety officials, and anyone else involved in pulling us through this medical crisis.

Today is National Medal of Honor Day.

Image result for national medal of honor

Only one American woman, Dr. Mary Walker, the subject of my forthcoming book, has ever received this commendation. It was awarded in 1865 in recognition of the service she rendered in the Civil War. Each Wednesday in these weeks leading up to the book’s publication, I’ll post the first sentence from a chapter along with an image that reflects something that happens in the chapter. Hopefully, these snippets will intrigue you enough to want to read the book.

Chapter One: Getting to Washington

In the early fall of 1861, Dr. Mary Walker, a twenty-nine-year-old dedicated reformer and passionate supporter of the Union, went to Washington, DC.

(Washington, D.C. train station image from Washington Historical Society)


Happy Birthday to Dr. Mary Walker

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only female recipient of the Medal of Honor, was born on November 26, 1832, in Oswego, New York.

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was born in the town of Oswego in 1832. She served as a surgeon in the Civil War before being captured crossing enemy lines to treat wounded civilians. She was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for her valor; the only woman in history to receive the distinction. She devoted her life to social causes, becoming a prominent writer and lecturer and advocating for the abolition of slavery as well as promoting women's suffrage and dress reform. Image courtesy of the Matthew Brady Collection of Civil War Photographs in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.(National Archives)

She grew up believing in abolition and women’s rights. During a time when most medical schools refused to admit women, Mary Walker found one that did–the Syracuse Medical College–and graduated in 1855.

In 1861, not long after the start of the Civil War, Dr. Walker shuttered her private practice in Rome, New York, and traveled to Washington, D.C., where she requested a commission as an assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army. Denied because of her gender, Walker volunteered, working at hospitals in the capital city as well as in the field. In 1865, President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor for her services as a physician during the war.

Mary Walker was a controversial figure. Not only had she chosen a “man’s profession,” she also adopted reform dress. Commonly known as the Bloomer costume, Dr. Walker wore trousers under a shortened skirt. She was arrested several times for wearing “men’s clothing” in public yet she never gave up her bloomers. It was a woman’s right, she believed, to wear what she wanted and to do the kind of work she wanted.

A prolific writer and public speaker, Dr. Mary Walker campaigned for women’s voting rights after the Civil War. She died in 1919, the year before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.

The details of her extraordinary life can be found in my forthcoming book, Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War, available for preorder now.



Before There Was a Veterans Day

President Woodrow Wilson created the first Armistice Day in 1919 to mark the anniversary of the end of World War I, November 11, 1918. During the 1920s, successive presidents made annual proclamations for observing November 11 with appropriate ceremonies. Armistice Day became a legal holiday in 1938, designed to honor veterans and the cause of world peace.


The peace did not last. After World War II ended in 1945, a movement started for a designated remembrance of all veterans. Congress passed legislation in 1954 substituting Veterans Days for Armistice Day. Beginning in 1971, because of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, official celebrations of Veterans Day were moved to the fourth Monday in October.

Before the two world wars, the United States had been involved in its own Civil War. A year after that conflict ended in 1865, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) formed to provide fellowship and support for Union veterans. The GAR also organized the earliest Memorial Day celebrations and supported federal pensions for veterans.

The GAR extended membership to at least two women: a vivandiere from Rhode Island named Kady Brownell and Sara Emma Edmonds, who dressed like a man to join the 2nd Michigan Infantry.

Though no evidence exists that she was a member, Dr. Mary Walker attended many GAR events, including one in Steubenville, Ohio in 1879. Her employment as a contract surgeon with the 52nd Ohio was as close to military service that she could get during the Civil War. After the war, Dr. Walker frequently received letters from men she had treated or met. If they were in need of assistance, she always tried to help.

About 6200 veterans marched in a parade in Steubenville on August 28, 1879. Twenty-five thousand people crowded into the city to take part in the festivities. Many belonged to area GAR posts. Dr. Walker sat on the bandstand platform, surrounded by politicians and generals, to listen to speeches. Local newspapers referred to her as a “veteran”–with the word carefully bracketed by quotation marks. She felt honored.


As Civil War veterans aged and died, membership in the GAR dwindled. It dissolved in 1956, after the death of its last member.