Stories of America's Greatest Heroes

Ken Harbaugh tells the stories of service members who have distinguished themselves through an act of valor. These stories feature recipients from the Civil War to present day, including a few who were originally overlooked for the medal.

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Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

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Dr. Mary Edwards Walker is the only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor. She fought her whole life to become a surgeon, to serve her country, and to achieve full rights for women. She refused to wear women's clothing and even testified before Congress on behalf of women's suffrage, but was never fully recognized for her groundbreaking work.

Learn more about Dr. Walker here:

Ken Harbaugh: Welcome to the Medal of Honor podcast, brought to you in partnership with the National Medal of Honor Museum. I’m Ken Harbaugh. In each episode, we’ll learn about a different service member who has distinguished him or herself through an act of valor.

On today’s show, we’re learning about someone unique in the history of the Medal of Honor. Dr. Mary Edwards Walker is the only woman to ever receive it.

Born in 1832, Mary wanted to be a doctor - so she saved up money and, in 1855, graduated from Syracuse Medical School.

When the Civil War broke out 6 years later, Dr. Walker wanted to help the Union Army, . but was not allowed to serve as a medical officer, because she was a woman.

Dr. Walker was not deterred - so she volunteered at the US Patent Office Hospital. Despite her medical degree, the army would not allow her to perform surgery - she was only allowed to work as a nurse.

Nevertheless, she persisted. In 1862, Dr. Walker wrote a letter to the War Department, asking them to let her become a spy. They rejected that as well.

Finally, her repeated requests to serve her country as a surgeon paid off. In 1863, Dr. Walker became the first female surgeon ever in the US Army.

Dr. Walker often crossed battle lines to treat soldiers and civilians. But in April of 1864, after just finishing an operation, she was captured by Confederate troops.

She was held as a prisoner of war in the South for 4 months and, as the story goes, she refused to wear the clothes provided to her because they were women’s clothes. Amongst her fellow Union soldiers, she did not want to be defined solely by her gender.

A month after she was released from Confederate custody, Dr. Walker became the assistant surgeon of the Ohio 52nd Infantry.

In addition to fighting for the Union Army, Dr. Walker fought for women’s rights. She refused to wear dresses her whole life and was once arrested in New Orleans because she was dressed like a man. In response, she reportedly said, “I don’t wear men’s clothes, I wear my own clothes.”

She fought for women’s suffrage, testifying before Congress, but was never truly recognized for all of her groundbreaking work.

In fact, her Medal of Honor was taken away near the end of her life. In 1917, many Medal of Honor recipients lost their awards, after the government reviewed their eligibility. Dr. Walker no longer met the requirements.

But, true to her strong-willed character, Dr. Walker continued to wear the medal until her death in 1919.

60 years after it was rescinded, Dr. Walker’s Medal of Honor was restored by President Jimmy Carter.

The Medal of Honor podcast is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. We are proud to support the National Medal of Honor Museum. To learn more, and to support their mission, go to mohmuseum.org. Thanks for listening.

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