When she was a little girl, Susan La Flesche sat by the bedside of a sick Native American woman, nursing her. The woman’s condition deteriorated, and she finally died in extreme pain. The white doctor that had been called to treat her never arrived.
Several years later, Susan became the first female Native American physician in the United States.
As both as a doctor and as an activist, she worked tirelessly throughout her life to improve the health, status and living conditions of the Native American people.
The youngest of four daughters, Susan was born in 1865 on the Omaha Reservation in northeast Nebraska. Her father was Chief Joseph La Flesche, known as Iron Eyes, and her mother was Mary Gale, known as One Woman.
Realising the influx of white settlers to their homeland would irrevocably alter their lives forever, Iron Eyes advocated education and assimilation to his people and to his children. He felt they had to be pragmatic in the face of inevitable marginalisation and prejudice.
After going to school on the reservation, Susan attended the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey. She returned to the reservation when she was seventeen. Teaching at the Quaker Mission, she nursed Harvard anthropologist, Alice Fletcher, who had become ill whilst working there. Alice strongly encouraged Susan to continue her education and so she returned to the East Coast to study at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, graduating in 1886.
One of Susan’s mentors at the Hampton Institute, Martha Waldron, the resident physician, encouraged her to apply for the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Susan was determined to study medicine but lacked any way to fund her ambitions. With the assistance of Alice Fletcher, Susan obtained a scholarship from the US Office of Indian Affairs to finance her degree. She also received some funding from the Women’s International Indian Association to help pay for her board and lodgings etc.
In 1889, a year early and at the top of her class, Susan graduated with a medical degree, the first Native American woman to do so. She might have been a doctor but, as a woman she could not vote and, as a Native American, she could not even call herself a citizen under American law.
Now fully qualified, Susan returned to the Omaha Reservation to work as a physician there, using a tiny office in the government boarding school. She was the sole doctor with around 1,200 patients in her care, many suffering with cholera or tuberculosis. Despite being paid a fraction of what other doctors might expect, she often had to pay for supplies and medicines out of her own pocket. She had to attend house calls on foot, sometimes walking miles to reach her patients who lived at a great distance, even in severe weather conditions.
In addition to treating their ills, Susan did her best to improve the living conditions of her patients and educate them about healthcare and disease prevention. She promoted the importance of cleanliness and ventilation, advocated the use of screen doors to prevent the spread of insect-borne diseases and waged campaigns against communal drinking vessels. Furthermore, to many of the people she attended, Susan was far more than a doctor; as the daughter of a chief she had responsibilities to her community extending beyond her professional role and she assisted and advised them on various matters not related to medicine.
Susan married Henry Picotte in 1894 and the couple moved to Bancroft in Nebraska. There she raised two sons and set up a private medical practice which treated both white and Native American people. Sadly, Susan’s husband was in poor health, exacerbated by his alcoholism, and he died in 1905. A year later, Susan headed a delegation to Washington DC to petition for the prohibition of alcohol on Native American lands. She strove to rid her reservation of the whiskey peddlers that had become so prevalent there and to educate her people about the dangers of alcohol.
She was a tireless activist in the fight for Native American human rights. She championed the right of her people to citizenship and legal status, she lobbied the federal government on their behalf and she challenged the land frauds perpetrated so frequently on the Omaha reservation.
In 1913 Susan achieved a lifelong dream by raising enough money for and opening her own hospital on the Omaha reservation in town of Walthill. Tragically, she died just two years later in September 1915, aged 50. However, her hospital remained open, serving the community, until the 1940s. It is now a museum, dedicated to Susan’s life and work.