Published on January 24, 2012 by Amy
The Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital is located in Walthill, Nebraska, a town situated on the Omaha Indian Reservation in the northeastern portion of the state. This National Historic Landmark is a one and one-half story frame building that was constructed in 1912-13 to serve as a facility for the practice of Dr. Picotte, the first American Indian woman to practice medicine in the United States. The hospital’s primary function was to serve Picotte’s people, the Omaha Indians. Designed by Sioux City, Iowa, architect William Steele, the building is a product of the Craftsman style of architecture and features a prominent full-length recessed porch along the main façade.
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Although Dr. Picotte’s tenure at the hospital was brief–she died two years after it was opened–the hospital is significant because of its association with Picotte, who pioneered in providing health care for American Indians. Susan LaFlesche Picotte was born on the Omaha reservation, which is now Thurston County in northern Nebraska. She was the daughter of Chief Joseph LaFlesche (Iron Eye) and his wife Mary (One Woman). Her father was the last recognized chief of his tribe and advocated Indian integration with white society. He raised all of his children to be independent, educated, and adaptable to a changing Indian society. Susan’s decision to attend medical school was unique at a time when formal medical training was rare for women, especially Indian women. In 1889, Susan LaFlesche graduated from the three-year medical program at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania at the top of her class in two years. In 1890, she accepted a position as physician at the government boarding school on the Omaha reservation, where she treated children and adults. Upon becoming the senior physician, she assumed the health care for 1,244 tribal members.
In addition to providing health care for her people, she served her tribe in many ways. She acted as teacher, social worker, advisor, interpreter for Christian church services, and was appointed as a missionary for her tribe by the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions. She also served as an advocate for Omaha Indian rights and was a dedicated temperance activist.
Susan Picotte’s lifelong dream to have a hospital to care for her people became a reality in January 1913. The $8,000 project, funded by a variety of sources, was the first hospital for an Indian reservation not funded by government money. The building contained two general wards, five private wards, a maternity ward, operating room, kitchen, reception room, and two bathrooms. The facilities served patients until the 1940s. Since then, it has served in numerous capacities. It is presently used as a museum with exhibits on the history of church missions, the Omaha and Winnebago tribes, and Susan Picotte. The former hospital is also used for various community functions and stands today as a reminder of Picotte’s important role in the lives of American Indians in Nebraska and the nation.