In 1889, Susan LaFlesche Picotte was the first American Indian woman to receive a medical degree. A number of people helped her achieve this goal, but the primary push came from Picotte’s innate ability and drive. This determination helped her to graduate at the top of her class and then practice in situations where she served as many as 1200 people spread over a large area. She achieved her ultimate dream in 1913, two years before her death, when she opened a hospital on the Omaha Reservation in the Nebraska town of Walthill.
Susan La Flesche was born to Chief Iron Eyes (Joseph La Flesche) and his wife One Woman (Mary Gale) on the Omaha Reservation on June 17, 1865. She was the youngest of eight children, five by Mary Gale and three by Joseph’s second wife, Ta-in-ne. The children worked along side their father on the farm, planting, hoeing, and harvesting crops, tending livestock, butchering and preserving meat, among other tasks. They also attended the reservation school run by missionaries.
The focus of the reservation school was to transform the students into “respectable” citizens of the United States. Basically, the intent was to pull them away from their Indian culture, beliefs and traditions, forcing them to conform to the standards of the white settlers. In spite of this, Joseph encouraged his people, including his children, to work hard to achieve an education. Susan attended the reservation school until the age of 14, but as she continued her education her focus was, and would always be, to help her people and to preserve their culture.
Having progressed as far as she could at the mission school, Susan was sent east to complete her education at the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey, where her sister Susette had graduated in 1875. She returned to the reservation at the age of 17 and began a 2 year stint as a teacher at the Quaker Mission School. During this time, she often tended the sick and one of those individuals was Alice Fletcher. Fletcher was an ethnographer who had become acquainted with Susette, Susan’s older sister, when she was traveling on the east coast lecturing with Chief Standing Bear and T.H. Tibbles about the living conditions of the Indians.
Fletcher worked closely with Susan’s half-brother Frank LaFlesche on a two volume history of the Omaha Nation, but she would also be of help to Susan in her quest to become a doctor. After teaching at the mission school, Susan returned east to attend the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia. She graduated at the top of the class and gave a speech at graduation in 1886. Fletcher was there and was once again impressed with the young woman, so she approached Sarah Thomson Kinney, the president of the Connecticut Indian Association about a scholarship for Susan to attend medical school.
Susan received high recommendations from the Hampton professors, including their resident physician, Martha Waldron, who was a graduate of the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia. This is where Susan applied, and once accepted, with a stipend from the Office of Indian Affairs and help from the Connecticut women, she began her official training as a physician. At first, in her letters home, Susan wrote how homesick she was and how much better prepared her classmates were, but the staff and students welcomed her and soon she felt at home. It wasn’t long before she was writing about how much she enjoyed her classes (even dissecting cadavers) and sending them medical advice.
Although her studies were challenging, Susan and her classmates took advantage of the culture of the city, going to the theater, opera, museums and lectures. In spite of becoming thoroughly acclimated to city living, her intention was always to return home to help her people. She spent the second summer back on the reservation trying to help fight a measles epidemic, where she encountered another challenge that she would face as a practicing physician. Many in the tribe didn’t trust the white man’s medicine, but attitudes began to change when they saw her take the medicine herself.
On March 14, 1889, Susan again graduated at the top of her class. Her high marks earned her a four month internship at the Women’s Hospital, but by August she was very glad to be back home.
Once Susan returned, she was appointed physician for the agency school, but before long she was taking care of the health of anyone on the reservation. This also included advice on hygiene and cleanliness, but Susan went beyond that. Able to speak the Omaha language and with an understanding of the larger world, she also gave advice on land issues and other legal matters. A typical day meant translating documents, writing letters and reports, taking care of patients in her office, and spending hours visiting her patients in their homes. She rode horseback or drove herself in a buggy, often returning at 10:00 at night and leaving a light in the window so that people could find her.
In addition to serving as the tribe’s physician, Susan was asked to become the medical missionary for the Women’s National Indian Association. She accepted and added the organization of Sunday School, morning and evening Sunday services and Wednesday night prayer meetings to her busy schedule.
In 1894, Susan surprised her friends and family by marrying. Henry Picotte was a handsome, outgoing and well-liked man of the Yankton Sioux. They had two sons, Caryl born in 1895 and Pierre born in 1898. Henry began farming on Susan’s land allotment and in spite of the increased responsibilities of being a wife and mother, Susan continued her work. Their life together wasn’t long. In 1905, Henry died of alcohol related disease. The ready availability of alcohol on the reservation was an issue that was very important to Susan and she took reducing this availability as one of her many causes.
Often Susan had to send seriously ill patients on the train for operations or hospital care. Her dream was to build her own hospital. Finally on January 8, 1913, in Walthill, Nebraska, her dream became a reality when the long awaited facility opened with 17 beds, both wards and private rooms, an operating room and all modern conveniences. After her death it was named the “Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital” and served the Omaha people until after World War II. It now houses a museum and community center.
Throughout Susan’s adult life, she suffered from a degenerative disease which she called neurasthenia. It caused severe pain of her ears, head, and neck. On several occasions she collapsed and spent weeks recovering. Finally, after two surgeries to attempt to remove diseased bone, Susan succumbed to her illness on September 18, 1915.
Susan LaFlesche Picotte was a well-respected physician with both Indian and white patients. She championed legislation and spoke to Congress on behalf of the Omaha and all Native Americans. She organized the Thurston County Medical Society, chaired the health committee of the Nebraska Federation of Women’s Clubs, and was a member of the Nebraska State Medical Society. She made tremendous contributions in the area of public health as well, but she was probably most remembered for her great love and care for her people. After her death Reverend D. E. Jenkins of the Presbyterian Mission board had this to say:
“Dr. Picotte gave herself unselfishly, passionately and often with what amounted to reckless disregard of herself to the task of relieving, helping and uplifting the Omaha Indians. By day and by night she dreamed dreams and saw visions of larger and better things yet to come for her beloved people.”
The Doctor Wore Petticoats: Women Physicians of the Old West by Chris Enss
Walking in Two Worlds: Mixed-blood Indian Women Seeking Their Path by Nancy M Peterson
U.S. National Library of Medicine: Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915)
Changing the Face of Medicine: Dr. Susan La Flesch Picotte
LaFlesche Family Papers: Biographical Note