There is little written about the role of female physicians during the Civil War because there were so few. There was virtually no opportunity for women to get the training required for a degree and their male colleagues did not accept even those that did earn one.
A pioneer spirit, Elizabeth Blackwell was never willing to accept status quo. She braved all criticism and rejection to be the first woman awarded a medical degree in 1849. When she had difficulty establishing her practice, she founded the New York Infirmary for Women in 1857. At the fall of Fort Sumter, Miss Blackwell met with the lady managers of her infirmary to discuss the care of soldiers. Subsequently, on April 29, 1861, she organized a meeting of three thousand women at the Cooper Institute in New York. Several prominent men were also in attendance of what became the formation of the Women’s Central Association for Relief (WCAR) to coordinate the work of numerous smaller associations. The WCAR was the precursor in the establishment of the U.S. Sanitary Commission in June. During the war, Miss Blackwell and her sister Emily, the third woman in the U.S. to get a medical degree, selected and trained nurses, with Elizabeth as chairman of the registration committee of the WCAR.34. After the war, they founded the New York Medical College for Women to train women physicians before returning to England to expand medical opportunities for women as they had done in the United States.
Blackwell was commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp in 1974, designed by Joseph Stanley Kozlowski. Syracuse University Medical School collection.
Another pioneer in the medical field, Mary was one of only a few woman, Union or Confederate, to hold a surgeon’s position during the Civil War. Mary, born in 1832, graduated from Syracuse Medical Hospital College in 1835. She first served in the Civil War as a nurse in the Patent Office Hospital while pursuing an application for a commission in the Union Army. In addition to nursing in a hospital, Dr. Walker nursed at nearby camps and organized the relief society for needy women visitors. It took three years from her initial application to receive a commission as a contract surgeon in 1864. She served first as an assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland. In addition to her medical duties, Mary also participated in some espionage for which she was subsequently captured. A Confederate captain wrote to his wife that he and his fellow soldiers “were all amused and disgusted … at the sight of a thing that nothing but the debased and depraved Yankee nation could produce.” He also noted that “she was dressed in the full uniform of a Federal Surgeon … not good looking and of course had tongue enough for a regiment of men.” Mary was imprisoned in Richmond for four months before an exchange was made with a Confederate surgeon. Dr. Walker was appointed to several other positions including superintendent of the Female Military Prison in Louisville before her discharge in June 1865. Shortly afterward, President Johnson presented her the Congressional Medal of Honor, the first and only woman to receive such an honor, for “bravery under fire at Gettysburg and a number of other battlefields by saving the lives of hundreds of Union soldiers.” The citation reads: Whereas it appears from official records that Dr. Mary E. Walker, a graduate of medicine, “has rendered valuable service to the Government and her efforts have been earnest and untiring in a variety of ways,” and that she was assigned to duty and served as an assistant surgeon in charge of female prisoners at Louisville, Ky., upon the recommendation of Major Generals Sherman and Thomas, and faithfully served as contract surgeon in the service of the United States, and has devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health, and has also endured hardships as a prisoner of war four months in a Southern prison while acting as contract surgeon; and Whereas by reason of her not being a commissioned officer in the military service, a brevet or honorary rank cannot, under existing laws, be conferred upon her; and Whereas in the opinion of the President an honorable recognition of her services and sufferings should be made: It is ordered, That a testimonial thereof shall be made and given to the said Dr. Mary E. Walker, and that the usual medal of honor for meritorious services be given her. The Army withdrew the medal in 1917. Several reasons have been passed on over time explaining the decision. There was one claim there was no record of its award. Some believe it was in retribution for her involvement in the suffrage movement. And a third stated reason is the military’s effort to “… increase the prestige of the grant” resulted in the rescission of 900 awards. However, Dr. Walker continued to wear the medal until her death in 1919. Fifty-eight years later, the United States Congress posthumously reinstated her medal. President Carter officially restored it on June 10, 1977.