Published on January 29, 2013 by Amy
Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte (June 17, 1865 – September 18, 1915) was the first American Indian woman to become a physician in the United States. Of Ponca, Iowa, French and Anglo-American descent, she grew up with her parents on the Omaha Reservation. She went to college at the Hampton Institute and, in 1889, got her medical degree at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP) in Philadelphia.
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LaFlesche Picotte worked in Nebraska, providing health care to her Omaha people for much of her career. In private practice after 1894, she also had European-American patients. In 1913 she founded a hospital on the Omaha Reservation at Walthill, Nebraska, the first on any reservation to be privately funded. After LaFlesche Picotte died two years later, the hospital as renamed in her honor. Later it was designated as a National Historic Landmark. Today it serves as a museum featuring her work and the history of the Omaha and Ho-Chunk tribes, and also has a center for the care of children.
Susan LaFlesche was one of seven children born to Chief Joseph LaFlesche (Insta Maza, Iron Eye) and his wife Mary, also called Hinnuagsnun (One Woman) on the Omaha Reservation in northeastern Nebraska. (Both were of half-European ancestry.) Joseph was Métis, son of a French fur trapper (also named Joseph LaFlesche) and his Ponca wife Waoowinchtcha. His wife Mary Gale was the mixed-race daughter of Dr. John Gale, a surgeon at Fort Atkinson (Nebraska) and Ni-co-ma, his wife from the Iowa (tribe). The LaFlesche family was “prominent, educated, and acculturated.”
Susan and her siblings became educated and made notable contributions in their fields. They included the reformer Susette LaFlesche Tibbles; Rosalie LaFlesche Player, who served as a financial manager for the Omaha tribe; and Francis La Flesche, an ethnologist at the Smithsonian Institution.
Susan attended school in northeastern Nebraska until age fourteen. Her father, the last recognized chief of the Omaha, encouraged his children and tribe to seek education and build relationships with white reform groups. LaFlesche went to New Jersey to attend the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies, as had her older sister Susette. She returned home at age 17 to teach for two years at the Quaker Mission School on the Omaha Reservation.
While teaching, LaFlesche attended to the health of ethnologist Alice Fletcher, who was working there. With Fletcher’s urging, LaFlesche returned to the East to complete her education and earn a medical degree. She enrolled for undergraduate work at Hampton Institute, a prominent historically black college (HBCU), which also admitted Native American students. The resident physician, Martha Waldron, was a graduate of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP) and encouraged LaFlesche to apply there.
Alice Fletcher helped La Flesche by securing scholarship funds from the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs and the Connecticut Indian Association, a branch of the Women’s National Indian Association. After only two years in the normally three-year program at WMCP, Susan La Flesche graduated in 1889 at the top of her class. She remained in Philadelphia to complete a year’s internship. She returned to Nebraska to provide health care to the Omaha people, mostly young persons, at the government boarding school. There LaFlesche was responsible for some 1200 people.
In 1906 LaFlesche Picotte led a delegation to Washington, D.C., to lobby for prohibition of alcohol on the Omaha Reservation.
In 1913, two years before her death, she fulfilled a dream by founding a hospital on the reservation in Walthill, Nebraska. In doing so, she secured the services of prominent architect William L. Steele and raised private funds from various sources, making this the first hospital on any American Indian reservation not funded by government money.
The hospital she founded was in her honor after her death, as the Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital. It has been adapted for use as a museum: it features her work, and the history of the Omaha and Winnebago tribes. Portions of the building are used for the Sacred Child Center, providing support for troubled young people.