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Mary Edwards Walker was born in Oswego, N.Y., on November 26, 1832. She acquired her early education from her sisters and parents, particularly her father, a skilled teacher, farmer, and doctor. In 1855, overcoming considerable obstacles and the prejudices against women that existed in the mid-19th century, 22 year old Walker graduated from Syracuse Medical College and became one of the first female physicians. That same year she married classmate Dr. Albert Feller, and they set up practice in Rome, N.Y. After 10 years of separation, they were legally divorced in 1869.

When the Civil War started, Walker applied for a surgeon's commission in the Union army, despite having had little training in surgery. After her petition was rejected by the surgeon general, she volunteered as a nurse in army hospitals. Walker petitioned President Lincoln in January 1864, writing that she would be willing to be assigned to a female ward, but she would "much prefer to have an extra surgeon's commission with orders to go whenever and wherever there is a battle...She will not shrink from duties under shot and shells, believing that her life is of no value...if by its loss the interest of future generations shall be promoted." Familiar with the persistent woman from her appearances around Washington in conspicuous dress, Lincoln endorsed Walker's petition.