"Who Were Whitman and Walker?"

Ever wonder how Whitman-Walker got its name?  Who are "Whitman" and "Walker" anyway? 

The "Whitman" is Walt Whitman, the celebrated 19th Century poet. It is not widely known that Whitman, who was gay, was also a health care worker during the Civil War. When his brother George was wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, Walt came to his aid, tending to him in the Army hospital until he was able to return to his regiment. Walt, however, did not return home so quickly.

Stopping in Washington, DC, to visit some hospitalized soldiers from his native Brooklyn, Whitman became aware that he could not so easily return to his old life, which seemed trivial by comparison to the suffering he saw. He remained in Washington for the remainder of the War and beyond, caring for the men in various Union Army hospitals throughout Washington. Whitman had no medical training, but he saw to the basic physical and psychological needs of the men. He often said that his interest was in helping to preserve the dignity and individuality of the patients in the often harsh and anonymous environment of the military hospitals. He took a job working as a clerk in the Army paymaster's office, working a few hours a week for meager pay, and spent much of what he earned on food, basic supplies and gifts for the soldiers he nursed. He later published a collection of poems, Drum Taps, about his experiences during the War.

The "Walker" was Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. Mary  was born in upstate New York into an abolitionist family. Her father, a physician, believed that his five daughters should have the same education that was available to the men of the day. In 1855, Walker graduated from Syracuse Medical College, the only woman in her class. She married another physician, keeping her own name, and together they opened a private medical practice. However, the public was not ready for a female doctor who wore trousers and a man's coat. The practice faltered and so did the marriage. Walker and her husband divorced and she never remarried.

During the Civil War, Walker came to Washington and tried to enlist in the Union Army. She was denied an officer's commission because of her sex, but nevertheless volunteered her services as an assistant surgeon in many Union Army hospitals and often on the front lines.  While on duty, she insisted on wearing a modified officer's uniform, including trousers under her coat and two pistols at her sides. Walker served valiantly, even spending four months in a Confederate prison in 1864 before being exchanged with other prisoners of war.

After the war, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor for her "services and suffering" in the war effort. In 1917, Walker's medal, along with about 900 others, was rescinded when the Army revised the criteria for awarding the medal to include only those "in actual combat with an enemy." Walker refused to return her medal (a federal crime) and wore it every day until her death in 1919. In 1977, President Carter reinstated her medal posthumously, citing her "distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex."

Walker's life after the war was dedicated to activism and she was active in such causes as women's suffrage and dress reform. She was proud of the fact that she was arrested numerous times for wearing full male dress, including wing collar, bow tie and top hat. In 1982, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating "Dr. Mary Walker, Army Surgeon," the only woman to have been awarded the Medal of Honor and only the second woman to graduate from a medical school in the United States. Ironically, the stamp portrays her wearing a frilly dress and curls.

Whitman's and Walker's experiences have much relevance to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. It was fitting that, when the Clinic was chartered in 1978, the founders chose to honor Walt Whitman and Dr. Mary Edwards Walker in naming the new organization dedicated to providing health care to the GLBT community. The advent of the AIDS crisis, which followed the incorporation of Whitman-Walker by only a few years, perhaps drew another parallel to our namesakes' wartime experiences.

Appropriately, Walt Whitman himself may have captured the essence of our mission when he wrote, "The expression of American personality through this war is not to be looked for in the great campaign, and the battle-fights. It is to be looked for…in the hospitals, among the wounded."

© 2012 Whitman-Walker Health
1701 14th St., NW - Washington, DC 20009
Phone: 202.745.7000
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