A Native American Healthcare Pioneer

Susan (La Flesche) Picotte was born in 1865 on the reservation of the Omaha Nation of Native Americans in Nebraska. Her father was the leader of the Omaha tribe. He was in favor of some assimilation policies, and this created tension within his tribe. Susan leaned some of the traditions of her heritage, but she was not given an Omaha name. She was encouraged to speak both English and Omaha.

A key moment in Susan’s life occurred when she was a child. She witnessed a white doctor refuse to treat a Native American woman. She knew at that moment that she wanted to become a doctor.

Susan started her education at a boarding school which was essentially an indoctrination into white society. She would leave the reservation to study at schools in New Jersey and Virginia. Susan was accepted at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, one of the few schools where women could train to be doctors.

With very little money, Susan became the first person in America to aid for professional education. In her aid agreement, she promised to stay single for a number of years so she could focus on her practice. Susan graduated at the top of her class. She was the first Native American woman to become a doctor. She returned to the reservation to practice. She would often work 20-hour days to care for the 1,200 patients who she worked with. She made $750/year.

Dr. La Flesche was one of the first doctors to focus on preventative medicine and public health. Since alcoholism was a serious problem, she became an advocate for prohibition. She also was an advocate for personal hygiene and sanitation practices.

Dr. Picotte (she married in 1894) was an early crusader against tuberculosis. Her husband died from TB in 1905. In her advocacy work, she became more involved in Native American rights. Particular issues she advocated for were supervision of reservations, inheritance rights, and funding for public health.

Dr. Picotte suffered from chronic illness her entire life. Her struggles included breathing problems, chronic head pain, and deafness. She died of bone cancer in 1915.

Dr. Picotte was a hero to her people, but she remains virtually unknown to most of us. The legacy she left should be more widely known. Think about what this woman of poor health did for the health of those in her care. That is devotion that should be an inspiration for all of us.

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“The greatest medicine of all is to teach people how not to need it.”  – Hippocrates

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