Mary Edwards Walker
Author: Dale L. Walker
This biography narrates the adventurous life of a pioneering woman doctor who redefined the profession and its public image. Chronicling a career in which she played dominant medical and non-medical army roles in two wars, the impact of Mary Edwards Walker attains epic significance when viewed in the context of the period in which her story played out – an age when society abjured female participation in the public space, and a time when both medicine and the military actively kept women out of their professional ranks. The biography required ‘piecing together‘ from other sources as Walker left very little written accounts of her own life, but it nevertheless painted a full picture of an independent, boundary-breaking, bold, and innovative doctor who raised the benchmark of what women can achieve in medicine and in any profession they set their minds. The book also provides context in terms of the political debates that polarised America in the lead up to its Civil War, and in the political strategies and military battles that determined the course and outcome of the war in which Walker played a key role (pages 16-17, 38, 78-80, 83-84, 93-97, 100-103, 109-111 and 124-127).
In documenting the factors that led Walker to becoming only ‘one of a handful of women medical practitioners in the country’, the author identified influences going back to her early life. One of these was her father who had not only ‘read up on medicine‘ and ‘became a self-taught country doctor‘, he was also ‘free of dogmatic ideas‘ about female public roles. The author asserts that Walker not only read her father’s medical books, but she also ‘assisted him in his primitive farmhouse medical practice‘. The author maintained that she made up her mind to study medicine at the age of twenty one, but he documented very little of her studies at Syracuse Medical College where she qualified. A reflection of the societal attitude to women doctors at the time is the book’s retelling of how Walker’s initial attempts to open an independent medical practice failed because ‘in the 1850s American female physicians were viewed as quacks‘. It was therefore disappointing that she was forced to practice as ‘a horse and buggy doctor‘, the book describing how this entailed such mundane tasks as ‘pulling teeth at a quarter each, delivering babies,…lancing boils, and patching up minor cuts and scrapes‘ (pages 29-30, 50, 55, 57 and 67).
Walker’s desire to participate in wars was depicted by the book as the discharge of the burden of a duty that ‘weighed heavily on her’ to do what she ‘believed was right regardless of consequences’. The book chronicled her experience of the Civil War starting with her early attempts to volunteer ‘as an assistant surgeon‘ in the Army Medical Corps, and how this met a ‘frosty reception‘ and a prompt rejection. The narrative followed her subsequent work as a volunteer civilian medical worker in a war hospital whose head found her to be ‘a capable, tireless assistant‘ and was ‘impressed by her sense of duty and determination to serve‘. Undaunted by her previous rejection, the book described how she successfully volunteered eight months later convinced that ‘her services where needed‘ after the confederate army victory at the Battle of Bull Run at Manassas, and again after ‘the demoralising federal setback at Fredericksburg‘. The book described how her perseverance eventually paid off when the Army appointed her as a civilian contract surgeon (pages 56, 81, 85-87, 91-92, 98, 111-119 and 134-135).
The dominant theme of the book, to which the author dedicated most of the biography, was Walker’s active field work in the United States Army during the American Civil War. In depicting her various courageous humanitarian forays under extreme frontline situations, the book described how she ‘searched and begged‘ for medicines and equipment to treat and care for wounded soldiers, and how she made ‘daily trips on horseback through the picket lines’ to attend to them. The account also highlighted how she campaigned against unnecessary limb amputations and convinced the army to move the most severely injured to Washington ‘for proper care‘. In portraying her medical work, the vivid account detailed how she used ‘her assortment of medicines, scissors, probes, scalpels, and hemostats‘ as she ‘doctored, nursed, and counseled wounded, maimed and dying soldiers’. It also chronicled how she ‘performed simple surgeries,…treated typhoid victims, and used supplies…to feed and treat her patients’. Her other less defined and more controversial wartime role as a spy for the army also featured prominently in the book which recounted how she was captured and imprisoned. It was however revealing when the book contrasted how the wounded soldiers saw her as ‘an angel of mercy‘ but their superiors saw her more as ‘a cantankerous, abrasive, harassing, professional scold who was perhaps insane’ (pages 111-119, 136-144 and 22).
A prominent theme of the book relates to Walker’s public identity which was symbolised by what was then a most unconventional dress code. The author attributed Walker’s lifelong ‘reform dress‘ appearance primarily to her father who prohibited his daughters from wearing corsets and other tight fitting clothes because of his ‘egalitarian ideas‘. The author also argued that her increasingly masculine choice of dressing was both a reaction to the ‘sexual intolerance‘ she faced as a doctor, and a reflection of her feeling that the feminine fashion of the time ‘shackled and enfeebled‘ women. Beyond her dress sense, her public persona was also notable for the progressive causes she championed, the book for example portraying how she promoted ‘social and political equality between the sexes’ and ‘preached women’s rights in an era when nobody wanted to hear about them’. Her public oratory also addressed ‘the most contentious issues of her era’ – ‘love, marriage, divorce, labor laws, religion, immorality, politics,…venereal disease, war, diet, abortion, and inhumane prison conditions‘. The author particularly highlighted her unprejudiced views on race, her parents both being ‘staunch abolitionists‘ who ‘taught their children about the evils of slavery‘ (pages 30, 58-60, 21, 70-71 and 76).
Walker’s post-war life was eventful for various reasons, and the book captured this phase of her life eloquently. The author noted that she left the army because the surgeon general – ‘an old army man with old ideas‘ who ‘knew nothing of women physicians nor did he want to learn’ – declined to give her an ‘official appointment or pay even after she presented her credentials and recommendations‘. The book documented her subsequent appointments as surgeon to a female military prison and to a refugee and orphan asylum. It also discussed her medical practice, her book writing, her contentious work with ‘a band of suffragettes‘, her celebrity tour of Europe, her unsuccessful attempt to be nominated for election to the US Senate, and her feisty campaign, at the age of 83, to ‘end voting discrimination against women’. As it portrayed her ‘new pursuit’ of lecturing which ‘gave her an outlet that would occupy her far more than the practice of medicine’, the book also noted that she was awarded the coveted Medal of Honour in a crowning recognition of her achievements (pages 23, 69, 98-99, 158-163, 168-171 and 178-183).
The book has meaningfully brought out the distinctive features that made Walker an important historical medical figure. It perfectly captures her determination to pursue a calling despite the challenges she faced, as it did her ability to adapt her calling to the circumstances around her. It graphically portrays the bravery and patriotism that marked her wartime work just as it reflects the confidence and self-assuredness with which she played the critical roles that enabled her to break the boundaries that threatened her ambitions. Whilst her public appearance and dressing were prominent features of her public image, and a topic close to her heart, the narrative perhaps dwelt somewhat disproportionately on this theme almost at the risk of detracting from her solid medical and social achievements. The book however compensates by its excellent portrayal of the atmosphere of the time – from the social norms on women’s public roles and the prevailing attitudes to women doctors, to the political undercurrents that presaged the American Civil War.
This is as much a biography of a pioneering and groundbreaking female doctor, as it is a historical jaunt through a seminal time in history. Her story is particularly inspiring for the structural and mental barriers she broke down in the face of institutional and social pressures to conform. The strength of the book also lies in its ability to capture the broader social and political atmosphere of the time that had direct bearing on its subject’s life. The book projects the highest ideals of medical practice in portraying the zeal and commitment with which Walker faced the hazards of war. It also epitomises the inherent medical values of self-sacrifice for the sake of the health and welfare of all people, even when external forces work to scuttle these humanitarian objectives. The book’s focus on a life of dedication to high principles conveys worthy and ageless lessons relevant to healthcare, and I recommend it to all doctors.
Publisher, Place, Year: Forge Books, New York, 2005
Number of chapters: 21
Number of pages: 221
Star rating: 5