Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker: A trailblazer for female surgeons  

Shabnam Parsa
Leshya Bokka
Liam Butchart
Stony Brook, New York, United States

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker with her Congressional Medal of Honor. National Library of Medicine Changing the Face of Medicine Exhibition.

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker (1832–1919) was the first female surgeon in the United States—a pioneering educator, clinician, and medical innovator.1 Her academic path was paved by her parents’ dedication to education. Vesta and Alva Walker established the first free school in Oswego, New York, where they cultivated an environment of learning and curiosity.2 After her primary and secondary education, Dr. Walker earned her medical degree in 1855 at Syracuse Medical College. She became the second woman to graduate from an American medical school after Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell.

After graduation, Dr. Walker applied for a surgical commission through the Union during the early months of the Civil War but was rejected, owing to the Surgeon General’s commitment to “male tradition.”3 Rather than being deterred, she volunteered as a nurse in the U.S. Patent Office building, which was converted into the “Indiana Hospital” during the Civil War.3 There she organized the Women’s Relief Organization for women who visited wounded men.

Despite the army’s resistance to female surgeons, Dr. Walker began unofficially treating soldiers at the front line during a typhoid epidemic. She continued to petition for appointment in the U.S. Army, first writing to Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, and then President Lincoln. Both denied her petition. In 1863, she was contracted to practice as a civilian acting assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Regiment, thus becoming the first female surgeon in the U.S. Army.2

During her military service, Dr. Walker pioneered advances in medical care. She spearheaded efforts to improve hygiene in wound care, resulting in a shift towards limb salvaging instead of amputations.4 She would often spare her own nightdresses to create makeshift clean bandages and avoid unsterile techniques in the operating room.4 She also believed many unnecessary amputations led to increased morbidity and mortality for soldiers.4

In 1866, Dr. Walker was the first woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, the U.S. government’s most commendatory military decoration during the Civil War.1,3 However, after bureaucratic debate surrounding her civilian status at the time of the award presentation, the award was rescinded in 1916 after no “distinguished gallantry” was noted.2 Decades later, the honor was restored in 1977. To this day, Dr. Walker remains the only female recipient of the Medal of Honor.2

Dr. Walker’s efforts helped to clear the path for women in medicine. In her declaration of 1897, she asserted, “I have prepared the way for the girl in knickerbockers.”1 After completing active military duty, she became an active mentor for female physicians. She became a journalist, publishing two books on woman suffrage, while advocating for reform in medical practice and female garments.5

For decades, women were prevented from entering the surgical arena, but over time this restriction has faded. The AAMC reports that in 2022 over 20% of general surgeons were women.6 While female surgeons are still underrepresented in surgical specialties, women now make up the majority of medical school matriculants. Dr. Mary Edwards Walker is remembered as a social pioneer and unwavering advocate for women’s rights, and her legacy contributes to the success of women across the world, emphasizing the role of mentorship in empowering women to challenge social norms and overcome barriers.


  1. National Institutes of Health. Changing the face of Medicine | Mary Edwards Walker. U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 3, 2015. https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_325.html 
  2. Alexander, Kerri Lee. “Mary Edwards Walker.” National Women’s History Museum, 2019.
  3. Rutkow IM. Mary Edwards Walker. Arch Surg. 2000;135(4):489. doi:10.1001/archsurg.135.4.489
  4. Klifto KM, Quan A, Lee Dellon A. Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919): Approach to limb salvage therapy. Wound Repair Regen. 2019;27(3):285-287. doi:10.1111/wrr.12695
  5. Spiegel AD, Suskind PB. Mary Edwards Walker, M.D.: a feminist physician a century ahead of her time. J Community Health. 1996;21(3):211-235. doi:10.1007/BF01558000
  6. Association of American Medical Colleges. Table 1.3. Number and Percentage of Active Physicians by Sex and Specialty, 2021. https://www.aamc.org/data-reports/workforce/data/active-physicians-sex-specialty-2021

SHABNAM PARSA, BA, is currently training for her MD at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University. She is simultaneously pursuing an MA in Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University. Her research interests include narrative medicine, the concept of the wounded healer, and mental health initiatives for healthcare students and professionals.

LESHYA BOKKA, BA, is completing an MD/MPH program at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University. Her academic interests are centered around the impact of language on outcomes and the healthcare experience in immigrant populations.

LIAM BUTCHART, MD, MA, received his medical degree from the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University (SBU), and his MA in Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics from SBU. He is currently a resident physician in psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine – Mount Sinai Morningside/West program. His research interests include psychoanalysis, literary theory, bioethics, and narrative medicine.

Summer 2024



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