Susan La Flesche Picotte

June 17, 1865 to September 15, 1915

First Female American Native Physician

 Picotte was born on the Omaha Reservation, which closely approximated the later Thurston county in northeastern Nebraska. The fourth daughter and fifth and youngest child of Chief Joseph La Flesche (Iron Eye) and his wife Mary (One Woman), she was born into a remarkable Indian family. Her father was a vigorous leader striving to make the Omahas a sober and progressive people, and his children carried forward his ideals. Growing up in the Indian culture, Susan did not learn English until she went to the mission and government schools on the reservation. Her real education began at 14 when, following in the steps of her older sister Susette, she entered the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies (New Jersey). After three years there she spent two years at Hampton Institute in Virginia, graduating in May1886 as salutatorian and receiving a gold medal for high scholastic achievement.

The Women's National Indian Association, founded in 1880 by Mary Lucinda Bonney and Amelia Stone Quinton, had begun a program of financing professional training for talented Indians. With its aid, Susan La Flesche now entered the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Completing the three-year course in two years, she graduated with the M.D. degree in 1889 at the head of a class of thirty-six. She was not quite twenty-four. After a year as an intern in the Woman's Hospital in Philadelphia, she went back to her tribe as physician at the government school for Omaha children. For a time she served also as a medical missionary for the Women's National Indian Association. Later her government services were extended to the rest of the tribe. This was an arduous task, for the 1,300 Omahas were widely scattered and the principal means of transportation was by horseback. The slender young doctor was often nurse as well as physician, and always teacher of new rules for health and sanitation. Even in bitter storms she never considered the way impassable; but the work was too heavy, and after four years she resigned. In 1894 she was married to Henry Picotte, half Sioux and half French in ancestry, and settled in Bancroft, Nebraska. There she carried on a growing medical practice among both Indians and whites, meanwhile bringing up two children and nursing her husband during a long illness that ended in his death in 1905. Her two sons, Caryl and Pierre, attended college; Caryl, who served in the Army in both world wars, was in the "death march" from Bataan and became a new lieutenant colonel.

Soon after the town of Walthill was founded (1906) on the Omaha reservation, Dr. Susan Picotte, following her father's principles, led a delegation to Washington and obtained the stipulation that every deed for property in towns established on the Omaha and Winnebago reservations should forever prohibit the sale of liquor. One of the earliest residents of Walthill, she was a leading spirit in the community, active in church affairs and the women's club, one of the organizers of the County Medical Society, and chairman of the local board of health. She became in effect the real leader of the Omahas, although traditionally they never followed a woman. Having meanwhile becom a medical missionary of the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions, under its auspices she established, in 1913, a hospital at Walthill; after her death it was given her name. It was estimated that in twenty-five years she had treated every member of the Omaha tribe and saved the lives of many.

Modest and unselfish, she had humor and a broad tolerance for human frailty. Although for years she suffered extreme pain from an infection of the facial bones, which finally proved fatal, she never lessened her activities. She died in Walthill in 1915 and was buried at Bancroft. Born in one culture, she became part of a far different one, but never lost touch with those who lived according to tribal values; fittingly, Presbyterian clergymen officiated at her funeral, but the closing prayer was made by an aged Indian in the Omaha language.

Article written by Norma Kidd Green
©1971 Radcliffe College
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