Sometime in the late 1880s, Native Americans got their first doctor, Susan La Flesche Picotte, who was not only a doctor but also a public health advocate and had a strong voice behind the allocation of land to members of her tribe, Omaha. Because she did not grow beyond middle age, LaFlesche is still a major figure in public health reforms and her activities for her community.
Susan La Flesche Picotte Biography
On June 17, 1865, Chief Joseph La Flesche, known as Iron Eyes, and his wife Mary Gale gave birth to their fourth daughter Susan La Flesche on the Omaha Indian Reservation in Nebraska. Joseph and Mary were both of mixed race, not only identifying themselves as part of the Omaha tribe but also participating in its treaty with the United States to cede most of the Omaha territory.
Susan La Flesche Picotte grew up on the reservation where she was born. It is also where she received her education when she attended the Missionary School, which was run by the Presbyterians and later the Quakers. Later, Susan left the country to study in New Jersey at the Elizabeth Institute, returning after a few years to teach for some time. She then moved to Virginia and studied at Hampton Institute.
The usual path most women took after graduating from Hampton Institute was to become either a teacher or a wife and mother. However, Susan La Flesche Picotte took the path that no woman had ever taken before when she applied to medical school in 1886, at a time when there were not many medical schools open to women. She was accepted into Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP), where she was able to graduate thanks to the financial support of Alice Fletcher, who was a family friend and ethnographer.
On March 14, 1889, she not only completed her medical studies, she was also the valedictorian and graduated at the top of her class.
5 Facts You Need To Know About Her
1. Medical Practice
The story of Susan La Flesche Picotte as a doctor did not begin when she became the first Indian doctor in America. It began many years ago when she was just an 8-year-old child who witnessed an old woman die while waiting for a white agency doctor. Four times Susan witnessed a messenger sending for the doctor, and four times he sent back the same message that he would come until the woman’s death.
At this young age, she felt that the doctor refused to come because the woman was only Indian, and this would trigger something in her to become a doctor herself. When she finally became a doctor, she took care of both white people and Indians.
2. Married Life and Children
Susan La Flesche married Henry Picotte in 1894. Henry caught Susan’s eye when he came to help on the farm of her sister’s then sick husband. In the spring of 1894, the two got engaged before they finally made a life-long commitment, to the surprise of many, because Henry was divorced.
Susan and her husband moved to Bancroft, Nebraska, where she continued to practice instead of being a housewife as expected. The couple had two children before Henry died in 1905. Before his death, he suffered from alcoholism, and this caused his wife to work hard to get rid of alcoholism on the reservation.
3. Battle Over Her Husband’s Inheritance
After Henry Picotte died, Susan had to fight hard to get his inheritance for her children. First, she had to fight to claim the 185 acres of land he had left in South Dakota and then sell it because a relative who was the children’s guardian was not willing to agree to the sale.
4. Community involvement
In addition to her personal struggles, Susan took up the various struggles of the communities, including land issues, and helped the people of Omaha sell their land and get their money. After all, she had gone through after the death of her husband, she took up the cause.
5. Her Death
Although she spent her life helping people with health problems, Picotte also had many health struggles since she was young, and this continued into old age. She was to become deaf much later in her life, before suffering and dying of bone cancer later on September 18, 1915.