Susan La Flesche Picotte, MD (1865-1915) – A Life Devoted to Healing Native Americans
• First Native American woman in the United States to earn a medical degree
• First person in the United States to receive federal aid for professional education
As a child, Susan La Flesche had watched a sick woman from her tribe die because the local white doctor would not give her care. She later credited this tragedy as her inspiration to train as a physician, so she could provide care for the people she lived with on the Omaha Reservation.
Omaha means “against the current,” and few members of the tribe embodied the name better than La Flesche Picotte. She pursued a medical degree at a time when even the most privileged of white women faced severe discrimination. In her remarkable career she served more than 1,300 people over 450 square miles, giving financial advice and resolving family disputes as well as providing medical care to tribe members at all hours of the day and night.
Susan La Flesche was born on the Omaha Indian Reservation in northeast Nebraska on June 17, 1865. Her father, Chief Joseph La Flesche (also known as “Iron Eye”), was a reformer who believed his children as well as his tribe were now living in a white man’s world in which change would be the only constant. While Iron Eye insisted that Susan learn the tribe’s traditional songs, beliefs, customs and language in order to retain her Omaha identity, he also sent her to a Presbyterian mission school on the reservation where she learned English and became a devout Christian.
At the age of 14, Susan was sent east to attend the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in Elizabeth New Jersey. She returned home to Nebraska at age 17 to teach for two years at the Quaker Mission School on the Omaha Reservation.
During her time at the Quaker School she helped care for ailing ethnologist Alice Fletcher, who was also working there. Fletcher was impressed by Susan’s intelligence and skills and encouraged her to pursue a career in medicine. At Fletcher’s urging, Susan went back East to complete her education and earn a medical degree.
She enrolled at Virginia’s Hampton Institute, one of the nation’s first and finest schools of higher education for non-white students. During her time at Hampton Institute, Susan took classes with other Native Americans and the children of former slaves. The resident physician there, Martha Waldron, was a graduate of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP) and encouraged Susan to apply to the medical school.
Alice Fletcher enabled La Flesche to complete her medical education by assisting her in securing scholarship funds from the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs and the Connecticut Indian Association, a branch of the Women’s National Indian Association. After only two years in a three-year program at WMCP, Susan La Flesche graduated in 1889 at the top of her 36-woman class, making history by becoming the first Native American woman physician. She remained in Philadelphia to complete a one-year internship.
Although urged to remain on the East Coast where she could have lived a very comfortable existence, the 24-year-old La Flesche returned to Nebraska after completing her internship to provide health care to the Omaha people at the government boarding school, where she was responsible for the care of some twelve hundred people.
Susan La Flesche married Henry Picotte in 1894 and the couple moved to Bancroft, Nebraska, where she set up a private practice, serving both white and non-white patients. She continued to practice medicine after the birth of her children, depending on the support of her husband to make that possible. This was unusual for Victorian-era women, who were generally expected to stay home after marriage in order to be full-time mothers. Along with her busy practice, Picotte also raised two sons and nursed her husband through a terminal illness.
Picotte was an active social reformer as well as a physician. She worked to discourage drinking on the reservation where she worked as the physician, as part of the temperance movement of the 19th century. Picotte also campaigned to prevent and treat tuberculosis, which killed hundreds of Omaha, including her husband Henry, as part of a public health campaign. Additionally, she worked to help other Omaha tribe members navigate the complex bureaucracy of the Office of Indian Affairs and receive the money owed to them for the sale of their land.
Picotte preached hygiene and prevention along with the healing power of fresh air and sunshine. She also spoke out against the white whiskey peddlers who preyed on local tribe members, continuing her father’s work as a passionate prohibitionist. In 1906 Picotte led a delegation to Washington, D.C. to lobby for prohibition of alcohol on the reservation.
Picotte worked on public health issues in the wider community, serving on the health board of the town of Walthill. She was a founding member of the Thurston County Medical Society, and also the chair of the state health committee of the Nebraska Federation of Women’s Clubs.
In 1913, two years before her death, she saw her life’s dream fulfilled when she opened a small hospital in the reservation town of Walthill, Nebraska. The hospital remained in service after Picotte’s death, operating until the late 1940s. Today the hospital houses a museum dedicated to the work of Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte and the history of the Omaha and Winnebago tribes.
Promise Pharmacy celebrates Dr. Susan La Flesche Picott for all her achievements and devoting her life to healing Native Americans.