Dr. Mary Walker: An American Radical, 1832-1919

Dr. Mary Walker: An American Radical, 1832-1919

Dr. Mary Walker: An American Radical, 1832-1919

Dr. Mary Walker: An American Radical, 1832-1919


A suffragist who wore pants. This is just the simplest of ways Dr. Mary Walker is recognized in the fields of literature, feminist and gender studies, history, psychology, and sociology.

Perhaps more telling about her life are the words of an 1866 London Anglo-American Times reporter, "Her strange adventures, thrilling experiences, important services and marvelous achievements exceed anything that modern romance or fiction has produced.... She has been one of the greatest benefactors of her sex and of the human race."

In this biography Sharon M. Harris steers away from a simplistic view and showcases Walker as a Medal of Honor recipient, examining her work as an activist, author, and Civil War surgeon, along with the many nineteenth-century issues she championed:political, social, medical, and legal reforms, abolition, temperance, gender equality, U.S. imperialism, and the New Woman.

Rich in research and keyed to a new generation, Dr. Mary Walker captures its subject's articulate political voice, public self, and the realities of an individual whose ardent beliefs in justice helped shape the radical politics of her time.


The large, rambling Walker house in Oswego Town was already steeped in activity when Mary Edwards Walker was born on November 26, 1832. Her parents, Vesta Whitcomb and Alvah Walker, left Syracuse in August of that year with the vision of establishing a productive home where they could raise their four lively, Syracuse-born daughters—Vesta, born in 1823; Aurora Borealis, 1825; Luna, 1827; and Cynthia, 1828—in a physically and intellectually healthy environment. Oswego Town seemed the perfect place to achieve their dream. They purchased a thirtyfive-acre farm on what became known as Bunker Hill Road. The soil was ideal for the growth of vegetables and fruits, there was natural lime-water available, and the acreage was abundant in groves of pine, beech, maple, birch, cherry, butternut, and ash trees. The farm was located only two miles from Lake Ontario and a little over four miles south of the booming city of Oswego. While the growth of Oswego meant an increase in industrial smoke, Oswego Town could still boast pristine air and the quiet life of the countryside. Vesta gave birth to two more children in the early years of their life in Oswego Town: Mary, born in 1832, and two years later, their only surviving son, Alvah Jr.

The limitless future the Walkers envisioned for their children was evident in the names they gave their first four daughters, as if to encourage them to think beyond the usual earth-bound conventions. Alvah had a passion for astronomy, and his love of observing the night skies is reflected in the older daughters’ names. If their last two children were named more conventionally, the choice for Mary at least reflected a certain pragmatism on the part of Vesta and Alvah, since she was named after a propertied paternal aunt, Mary Walker (1804–1895). The Walkers’ youngest daughter would make the name famous in the annals of America’s radical thinkers.

The intellectual environment that the Walkers sought was readily available in the Central New York region of the 1830s, and as progressive thinkers, they added to its vibrancy. Their farm was named “Bunker Hill” because, as Mary later . . .

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