Celebrating Dr. Mary Edwards Walker – First Female Surgeon in the US

March 7, 2018


March is National Women’s History Month and we here at WOLFPACC are in awe of the women who have made historic strides in medicine. Among them: Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, recorded as the first female surgeon in the United States.

In 1855, Walker earned her degree from New York’s Syracuse Medical College, becoming the second female graduate of an American medical school behind only Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, who completed Geneva Medical College in 1849. Initially, she went into practice with husband Albert Miller in Rome, NY, but the venture was short-lived. Female physicians were generally not trusted or respected at that time and Walker apparently drew the ire of the community by refusing to change her last name upon marrying.

Walker proved quite the nonconformist in both medicine and fashion. She believed corsets were damaging to a woman’s bones and organs and shunned wearing long skirts and petticoats because of their discomfort, inhibition of movement and collection of dust and dirt.

“The greatest sorrows from which women suffer to-day are those physical, moral, and mental ones, that are caused by their unhygienic manner of dressing,” she wrote in 1871. Instead, she became known (and often criticized) for wearing men’s trousers and suspenders under knee-length dresses.

Walker again pushed boundaries for women when she signed up to volunteer as a surgeon for the Union Army at the outbreak of the American Civil War, treating soldiers near the front line at the Battle of Fredericksburg and in Chattanooga after the Battle of Chickamauga. It was she who proudly alerted the media about Frances Hook, a woman who served in the Union forces disguised as a man. In September 1862, the Ward Department rejected her request to be employed as a spy. The next year, the Army of the Cumberland hired Walker, making her the first female surgeon formally employed – and paid – by the US Army Surgeon.

Often, she crossed enemy lines to treat soldiers on both sides of the conflict, which may have contributed to her 1864 capture by Confederate troops. She was arrested as a spy jut after helping a Confederate doctor perform an amputation. Ever defiant even while imprisoned, she refused to wear the women’s clothes provided to her and ultimately was exchanged for a Confederate surgeon from Tennessee. After meeting briefly with President Abraham Lincoln, she asked to return to the battlefield. 

In 1865, Walker received the Congressional Medal of Honor and to this day, remains the only woman  to do so.

Today, the number of female surgeons remains comparatively low. As of 2015, 19.2 percent of US surgeons were women and just 18 women served as chairs of surgery departments nationwide, according to the According to the Association of Women Surgeons. But that may change in the coming years. The latest statistics, released by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) in December, show that females make up 50.7 percent of the 21,338 students entering medical school in 2017. That’s up from 49.8 percent in 2016 and just enough to finally tip the scales – for the first time ever, women outnumber men entering medical school.

If you’re a woman considering a medical career, WOLFPACC can help. Call 904-209-3140 to hear about our innovative approach to the study and practice of medicine and learn how you can best prepare to ace your USMLE and COMLEX exams.