Women’s History Month: Susan La Flesche

Susan LaFlesche Picotte (June 17, 1865 – September 18, 1915) was an OmahaNative American doctor and reformer in the late 19th century. She is widely acknowledged as the first Native American to earn a medical degree. She campaigned for public health and for the formal, legal allotment of land to members of the Omaha tribe.

Susan La Flesche Picotte, M.D.

Susan La Flesche was the first Native American woman to become a physician. She attended the missionary school on the Omaha Reservation, the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies. In 1884 she enrolled in the Hampton Institute in Virginia, which had been established by Samuel Armstrong to educate freed slaves. Susan graduated at the top of her class and then attended Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. She secured a scholarship at the Medical College and again finished at the top of her class.

Susan accepted a position as the attending physician at the government boarding school back on her Omaha reservation. There she was responsible for teaching students about hygiene, and often cared for other community members outside the school. She also helped other tribal members write letters and translate official documents. She quickly became the preferred doctor on the reservation, leading her white counterpart to quit, making her the only doctor for over 1300 square miles.

In 1894 she married Henry Picotte and established a private practice in Bancroft, Nebraska. She practiced medicine in Bancroft for the rest of her life, as her health permitted. She raised two sons and lectured on health related matters. After her husband’s death in 1905 she became a Presbyterian missionary to the Omaha nation and represented them in negotiations with the government. Her final accomplishment was the building of a hospital in Walthill, Nebraska. She died at the hospital in 1915. The hospital has been declared a national historic landmark and since 1988, a festival has been held yearly in her memory.

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