Dr. Mary Walker's War: An American History Play

by Kathy Wilmore

*Mary Edwards Walker
*Vesta Walker, Mary's mother
Caleb March
people in Oswego Town
Emily Withers
Josie Withers, Emily's daughter
*Albert Miller, a medical student, then doctor
Belle Brady, people in Columbus, Ohio
Jack Hexam, people in Columbus, Ohio
Clerk, at a U.S. Army office
*Confederate soldier
Narrators A-D

*An asterisk indicates a character who was a real person.

About This Play

It didn't worry Mary Edwards Walker that people might — and often did — turn up their noses at her or call her a freak. She held her head high through many a tough battle — and won more than she lost.

Walker's battles may seem trivial today, when females can go to school, become doctors, join the army — or wear pants. But she was considered odd — if not downright insane — because she did all those things and more.

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Narrator A: In 1832, Mary Edwards Walker is born in Oswego Town, New York. Her parents, Alvah and Vesta Walker, have a farm. But the Walkers are no ordinary farm family.

Caleb March: That Walker clan is one peculiar bunch. With all the farm chores that need doing, they let 'em all drop every day and pile the kids into the schoolhouse that Alvah built.

Emily Withers: Book-learning is fine for their boy. But educating their five girls is a complete waste of time. It won't teach 'em what they need to know to be good wives and mothers!

Josie Withers But Mama, Mary says that she's going to be a doctor.

March (laughing): Goodness, child, that's the silliest thing I ever heard. Everybody knows there's no such thing as a lady doctor!

Narrator A: That was true, but not for long. In 1849, a woman named Elizabeth Blackwell becomes the first American woman to earn a medical degree. Young Mary Walker, already determined to be a doctor herself, is thrilled by Blackwell's achievement.

Mary Walker: Doctor Mary Edwards Walker. Won't that sound grand? Alvah Walker: It will indeed. But Mary, your mother and I can't afford to send you to medical school.

Mary Walker: I know. That's why, as soon as I finish school, I'm going to teach school and save every penny.

Vesta Walker: It won't be easy, you know. People will turn away from you, laugh at you, call you names —

Mary Walker: Let them! I don't care a whit what other people think. I'm going to be a doctor, and that's that.

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Narrator B: Medical schools keep turning down Mary's applications, but she keeps trying. Finally, she is accepted at Syracuse Medical College and begins her studies in December 1853. She faces many obstacles — including jeers, pranks, and cold shoulders from male classmates and instructors. But one day —

Albert Miller: Excuse me, miss. I'm Albert Miller, one of your classmates. I'd just like to say that I admire what you're doing. Ignore those idiots.

Mary Walker: Don't worry, I do. If they want to be foolish, it's nothing to me. I'm here to learn!

Narrator B: She does. In 1855, she earns her medical degree. She is Dr. Mary Edwards Walker at last.

Walker tries to set up a private practice in Columbus, Ohio, but few people are willing to trust a female doctor. The few who do give her a try balk when she insists on being paid the same as a male doctor.

Belle Brady: Who does that Walker woman think she is, anyway?

Jack Hexam: Folks are saying that she's taken to wearing those baggy trousers that Mrs. Amelia Bloomer designed for women to wear.

Brady: It's true. She says bloomers are more comfortable; healthier, too!

Hexam: Disgraceful! We'll soon be rid of her, though. She's moving to Rome, New York, and getting married.

Brady (amazed): Really? Who would marry a creature like her?

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Narrator C: Albert Miller would — and does. But Mary stuns him and even her own family by showing up for her wedding dressed in trousers and a long dress coat. She also insists on keeping her own name — something that very few women have done.

Walker and Miller share a medical practice. Some townsfolk allow Walker to treat them. But after a few years, her outspokenness and insistence on wearing her "bizarre costume" alienate both husband and patients. She and Miller split up.

In 1861, the U.S. is ripped apart by the Civil War. Walker goes to Washington, D.C., and tries to sign up as an army surgeon.

Clerk: Ma'am, there is a war going on! I have no time for silly pranks.

Walker (sternly): This is no prank. I am a doctor! How dare you waste my skills when thousands of wounded boys need medical attention?

Clerk: If you want to help, do what other ladies do: be a volunteer nurse.

Narrator C: Walker spends the first years of the war doing volunteer nursing and other war-aid work. She also earns another medical degree. But she keeps trying to get an army surgeon's post. In September 1863 . . .

Clerk: Lady, you're a real pest. But you've hit it lucky at last. Our men are getting torn up bad. The generals need every surgeon they can get at Chattanooga, Tennessee. They'll even take you. It ain't an official post —

Walker: Just point the way!

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Narrator D: Dr. Walker hurries to Chattanooga. The North has just lost a fierce, two-day battle at nearby Chickamauga, Georgia. Thousands of wounded Union troops are pouring into Chattanooga's field hospital. No one has time to care that one of the surgeons is a woman.

Walker (writing home): You would not believe how awful it is here. Men are piled up and crowded together in the filthiest of conditions. Blood and mud are everywhere, and the tents offer little shelter. Doctors are so busy that few take time to figure out what treatment would be best for each soldier. If he is wounded in the arm or leg, they chop it off and go on to the next fellow. The sawed-off limbs are tossed in big piles, to be taken away later. I don't hold with this practice. I believe that we could save most boys' limbs, but I seem to be in a minority in thinking this way.

Narrator D: Walker usually wears a uniform just like the men's: a blue jacket with gold buttons, blue pants with a gold stripe down the side, and a green surgeon's sash. When she has time, she rides into the countryside to treat civilians — mostly Southern women and children. Everywhere she goes, people gossip and stare. But the need for medical aid is so great that most people accept her help. In April 1864, when she is crossing enemy lines to help civilians . . .

Confederate soldier: You! Halt!

Walker: I'm a doctor. Folks at that farm need help.

Soldier: That's what you say. Come with me. I'm taking you prisoner.

Walker (angry): How dare you!

Soldier: Ma'am, you've ridden between the Yanks' side and ours way too often. You've got to be a spy!

Narrator D: Dr. Walker is sent to a political prison in Richmond, Virginia.

Walker (writing in her diary): My room is tiny and airless, and the food is wretched. But what bothers me is that they won't let me treat the sick and wounded. There are so many!

Narrator D: In August 1864, she is freed in a prisoner exchange. She renews her efforts to win official army status. Finally, on October 5, 1864 — after years of volunteer service — Dr. Walker is granted a commission as Assistant Surgeon — and major — in the U.S. Army.

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After the Civil War ended in 1865, Mary Edwards Walker was given the Congressional Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service — the nation's highest award for bravery. She was the first woman ever so honored.

Walker was controversial all her life: for speaking up in "unladylike" manner, trying to vote, and going about in trousers instead of skirts. For her "fashion," people spat at her, pelted her with rotten eggs, and called her names. She was even arrested for "disturbing the peace" when a crowd gathered to stare at her clothing.

In 1917, the U.S. government said that Walker's Medal of Honor had been given by mistake, and that she had never officially been in the U.S. Army. It revoked (canceled) her award, but she wore the medal proudly until she died in 1919. In 1977, the U.S. Army restored Walker's official status — and her Medal of Honor.

Adapted from Junior Scholastic, March 11, 1994.

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