By: Kailen Skewis
Early on in her career as a doctor, Susan La Flesche Picotte could deliver babies, suture wounds and cure tuberculosis, but as a woman she could not vote or hold office, and as an Native American she couldn’t even be recognized as an American Citizen.
La Flesche, born in June of 1865, was the first woman of Native American decent to become a doctor in the United States. She was born and raised in northeastern Nebraska on the Omaha Indian Reservation with her three sisters Susette, Rosalie, and Marguerite. Their parents both identified as Omaha and spoke multiple languages including French, English, and Omaha which they passed onto their children. Joseph La Flesche, their father, was a principal leader of the Omaha tribe in 1855. He was also known as Iron Eye and was the last recognized chief of the Omaha. Their mother, Mary Gale, refused to speak any other language than Omaha despite understanding English and French.
La Flesche graduated second in her class from the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, which is now Hampton University, and afterwards went on to attend the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP). WMCP was one of only a few medical schools that accepted women at the time.
La Flesche is considered one of the first people in American history to receive aid for professional education. During medical school, she wrote a letter to the Connecticut Indian Association explaining her goal of going home to teach adults and children how to properly take care of themselves. The association, which had roots in women’s domesticity, thought her plan coincided with their virtues and pledged to sponsor Susan’s medical school expenses, as well as her housing and books on the condition that she would remain single for a number of years in order to focus on her studies and, later, her practice. Susan stayed single until 1894 when she met, got engaged to, and then married Henry Picotte.
After three years at WMPC, Susan graduated at the top of her class and went back home to Nebraska to work as a physician for the Omaha agency. Her career began with teaching students about good hygiene in order to stay healthy, but quickly developed into caring for hundreds of white and Native American patients as the only physician on the Omaha Indian Reservation which stretched almost 1,350 square miles. Susan worked tirelessly as a physician. She made many house calls daily, sometimes traveling miles in all kinds of weather to see a patient. Eventually, she opened a private practice in Nebraska where she was more easily able to treat patients in a safe and neutral space.
La Flesche was more than just a physician during her life. She did as much as she could to better the lives of those around her. She sought after better healthcare for everyone, advocating for modern hygiene and disease prevention standards. She was also a major advocate for temperance on the reservation. Alcoholism on the Omaha Indian Reservation was an intense issue while Susan was alive. While making land deals, some white people would use alcohol to manipulate Omaha people. Susan knew of the harm these practices caused and sought to control the damage by campaigning for a prohibition law in the county. She also lobbied the Meiklejohn Bill. The bill prohibited the sale of intoxicating liquors to any recipient of allotted land. It did eventually become law in early 1897 but ended up being nearly impossible to enforce. Her devotion to advocating for temperance was largely fueled by her husband, Henry, who was an alcoholic and died in 1905 from tuberculosis apparently amplified by his alcoholism.
After her husband’s death, Susan and their children moved to Walthill, Nebraska where they built a house and a hospital. Ever since medical school, she had campaigned for the building of a hospital on the reservation. In 1913, just two years before her death, the hospital was finished and later named after her. This was the first hospital on the Omaha Indian Reservation that was privately funded. The hospital has served as a few different spaces. It survived as a hospital up until 1940 when it was turned into an elderly care center. Now it has become a memorial hospital, named the Susan La Flesche Picotte Center. It displays photos and artifacts from Susan’s life and commemorates her medical work, and shows some of the history of the Omaha and Winnebago tribes.
Dr. La Flesche-Picotte was regarded very highly in her community at the time of her death. She had achieved goals that many people had thought impossible. She fought against stereotypes that effected both Native Americans and women, and ultimately won when she proved to be a very successful physician. Susan changed the face of medicine during her life even though her story is relatively unknown.