Dr. Walker was born on a farm in the Town of Oswego, in upstate New York, on November 26, 1832, the fifth daughter of Alvah and Vesta Whitcomb Walker. Much of Dr. Walker’s tendency towards non-conformity may be attributed to her parents who, among other things, believed their daughters should receive a professional education.
After working first as a school teacher like her sisters, Dr. Walker attended Syracuse Medical School from which she graduated in 1855. After practicing briefly in Ohio, Dr. Walker married a fellow physician, Albert Miller. They moved to Rome, New York, where they set up a medical practice. Dr.Walker did not take Miller’s name and they were separated two years later, Dr. Walker accusing her husband of infidelity.
Dr. Walker remained in Rome, running her small practice, advocating social causes and writing for the magazine Sybil. Dr. Walker was a supporter of Amelia Bloomer and dress reform. She chose to wear pants style bloomers as did so many other dress reformers in Western New York State. She was elected president of the National Dress Reform Association in 1866. For the rest of her life, Dr. Walker wore full male attire, claiming that she had been granted permission by Congress (no such claim has been documented).
Dr. Walker later spent a year in Iowa where she unsuccessfully attempted to get a divorce. While in Iowa, Dr. Walker attended the Bowen Collegiate Institute where she precipitated a series of incidents which shocked the administration and resulted in her expulsion. When the Civil War broke out, Dr. Walker traveled to Washington to offer her services. She worked first as a nurse in the improvised hospital in the U.S. Patent Office. Discovering the wives and mothers of soldiers on Washington park benches, Walker helped to found the Women’s Relief Association. In 1862, she began working in Virginia. In 1863, she went to Tennessee where she was briefly attached as a surgeon to an Ohio Regiment. Even after her dismissal from this post Dr. Walker remained dressed in an officer’s uniform.
She roamed the countryside ministering to southern families. For a period of time between April and August of 1864, Dr. Walker was a prisoner of war who was exchanged for a Confederate officer. Finally in September of 1864, Dr. Walker was awarded a paid contract as Acting Assistant Surgeon with the Ohio 52nd Infantry. She left service in 1865 and served for a brief time as surgeon of a Women’s Prison Hospital in Louisville, KY. A short time later Dr. Walker was awarded the first Congressional Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service ever awarded to a woman. She was extremely proud of her medal and wore it often, especially when speaking in public.
Beginning in 1867, Dr. Walker’s activities become increasingly political. She lived for a few years with Belva Lockwood, a fellow women’s suffrage activist, mostly in Washington D.C., but also traveling extensively to promote women’s causes. In addition to her dedication to the cause of women’s suffrage, Walker had very progressive opinions regarding marriage and divorce. She was an outspoken opponent of alcohol and tobacco use but very tolerant in her religion. Suffragist organizations initially praised Dr. Walker for her Civil War service. However, Dr. Walker was soon alienated from most contemporary suffragists for what they saw as her growing eccentricities.
Dr. Walker also disagreed with the women’s suffrage movement over their push for an Amendment to the Constitution allowing women to vote. Dr. Walker believed that the Constitution already gave this right to women. Dr. Walker also published two books during this time, the partly autobiographical Hit in 1871, and Unmasked or The Science of Immortality, in 1878. From 1890 on, Dr. Walker lived in Oswego, New York, fighting personal and political battles for women’s rights. Later interviews with local Oswego residents reveal that it is her unusual style of dress and her mannerisms that are most often remembered about Dr. Walker.
In 1917, Dr. Walker’s Medal of Honor was revoked (as were so many others) because there were questions surrounding the terms used to justify this prestigious award. Dr. Walker steadfastly refused to surrender the medal. Dr. Walker died on February 21, 1919. She was buried in a black suit in her family plot in Oswego Town cemetery. Through the efforts of her grandniece and some members of Congress, her Medal of Honor was officially restored to her on June 10, 1977. The medal is now the property of the Oswego County Historical Society.