Author: Tran Luu
As a young child, Susan la Flesche Picotte witnessed a tragedy right before her very eyes: a
Native American woman was refused treatment by a white doctor on the basis of her origins,
and she later succumbed to her illness and died. This became the base for why la Flesche went
into medicine. She wanted her people, the Omaha tribe, to receive the same medical services
as the white people, and she thought that if the white doctors won’t do their jobs, she would go
and do it for them.
Born to Chief Joseph la Flesche and his wife Mary, Susan la Flesche went to school at the
Omaha Reservation until she was 14. She then went on to the Elizabeth Institute for Young
Ladies in New Jersey, and when she turned 17, she came back home to become a teacher.
However, with the help of Alice Fletcher, an anthropologist who was also a women’s rights
advocate, Susan la Flesche was able to enroll at the Hampton Institute, a famous school of
higher education for non-white students, where she caught the eyes of a resident physician
there, who then encouraged her to go for a medical degree at the Women’s Medical College in
Pennsylvania. Due to her home life, Susan wouldn’t have been able to afford the college by
herself, but once again, Alice Fletcher swooped in and helped her secure a scholarship for her
studies. She would then go on to become the first Native American ever to secure herself a
medical degree, and as a valedictorian to boot.
Of course, her journey wasn’t completed without the sexist ideals of the Victorian era interfering with
her way. Not only that, she also had to deal with the drawbacks from simply being a Native
American, which she fought against valiantly, saying that “We who are educated have to be
pioneers of Indian civilization...We are only beginning; so do not try to put us down, but help us
climb higher. Give us a chance.”
After her grueling time in medical school, Susan la Flesche went back to the Omaha
Reservation, intended on becoming a physician befitting of her people. There, she was met with
a reality that motivated her into being a doctor in the first place. Many of her tribe’s members
filed into her clinic, wanting to be treated for cholera or tuberculosis, or simply, in search of a
clean place to rest. She welcomed them all in, and she became a stand-in for their consultant,
lawyer, accountant, priest, and all other things imaginable. She did such a good job that, in spite
of her, all the white doctors in the area quit, leaving her as the only doctor on a 1350-square-
miles reservation. Of course, this was better than knowing there were doctors out there who
could be saving lives but just chose not to based on a race issue.
As if her life as a doctor wasn’t busy enough, Susan la Flesche Picotte, a last name she
acquired when she got married, fought for prohibition and proper hygiene. Though she was a
true doctor who had graduated from a prestigious school, there were still many natives who
didn’t believe her, and she had to silly earn their trust. Once she settled down, she realized that
her tribe is now rife with white alcohol peddlers, who were encouraging her people to trade in
food and lands for more drinks, and she went on a warpath to get liquor banned from towns
within the reservation’s borders. She advocated strongly for proper hygiene, the usage of
screen doors to keep out flies that are carrying diseases, as well as to the banning of communal
drinking cups and mescal used in religious ceremonies.
When she died in the fall of 1915, Susan la Flesche Picotte had opened a private hospital in her
own name, a dream she had since she started on this journey, and it became the first modern
hospital in Thurston County, Walthill, Nebraska.
Fun Fact: Susan la Flesche was fluent in English, French, Otoe, as well as her native language.
She was also taught how to paint and play the piano as a child, urged by her father’s warning of
“Do you always want to be simply called those Indians or do you want to go to school and be
somebody in the world?”
Image Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Doctor.susan.la.flesche.picotte.jpg