La Flesche, Susan (1865–1915)
La Flesche, Susan (1865–1915)
First Native American woman physician. Name variations: Susan La Flesche Picotte. Born Susan La Flesche on the Omaha Reservation in what is now Nebraska, on June 17, 1865; died in Walthill, Nebraska, on September 18, 1915; daughter of the last recognized Chief of the Omahas, Joseph La Flesche (also called Inshta'maza) of Omaha-French descent, and Mary Gale, also called Hinnuaganun, of Iowa-English descent; sister of Susette La Flesche (1854–1902), Marguerite La Flesche, and Francis La Flesche (1857–1932); attended missionary school, Elizabeth Institute of Young Ladies in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and Hampton Normal and Agriculture Institute; graduated from Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania, 1889; interned as assistant to resident physician at Women's Hospital, Philadelphia, March–August, 1889; married Henry Picotte (a mixed-blood Sioux), in 1894 (died 1905); children: Pierre Picotte; Caryl Picotte.
Attended missionary school (1870–79); student at Elizabeth Institute (1879–84); attended Hampton Normal and Agriculture Institute (1884–86); attended Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania (1886–1889); had tenure as government physician assigned to the Omaha Reservation (1889–93); began public health reform as chair of State Health Committee of Nebraska Women's Clubs, lobbied on behalf of Omaha people for public health legislation at the Nebraska State Legislature, active as a prohibitionist and legislative reformer (1897–1915).
Dedicating themselves to the Omaha people was a way of life for the La Flesche family. Susan La Flesche's parents, Joseph and Mary Gale La Flesche , had raised their children to revere the Omaha traditions and to become activists on behalf of the beleaguered midwestern tribes, all of whom were under the constant threat of loss of their tribal lands due to the westward expansion then under way in the United States. When Susan was only ten years old, her eldest sister, Susette La Flesche Tibbles, began the first of many fund-raising tours of the eastern U.S. on behalf of the Omaha-Ponca Committee.
That Susan wanted to help her people was no surprise; but to insist on a career in medicine from an early age was another matter. Few women and even fewer Native Americans had the opportunity to become physicians at the end of the 19th century. In an age when few women attended college or put a career before marriage and children, even to dream as La Flesche did was nothing short of extraordinary. One advantage of having older siblings who were nationally recognized activists was the contact it gave her with people willing to help her attain her goal. From 1879 to 1884, she followed in the footsteps of her sister at the Elizabeth Institute of Young Ladies in New Jersey. In 1886, she received notification that she had been granted financial aid to attend medical school.
Upon completion of her internship, La Flesche applied for the job of government physician assigned to the Omaha agency. She was accepted and began her tenure on August 5, 1889. For the next four years, she worked tirelessly, often in horrendous and even dangerous conditions, administering medical care to patients; she treated diseases ranging from potentially deadly influenza to dysentery, cholera, tuberculosis and measles. From October 1891 to the spring of 1892, she saw more than 600 patients. Unable to afford a horse and buggy, she often traveled the distances between patients on foot, sometimes in driving rain, freezing snow, or sub-zero weather. Never robust, she allowed her own health to become irrevocably damaged, and by 1893 she was bedridden. One of the many infections she caught eventually cost her her hearing, and she never fully regained her strength. Much to her disappointment, she was forced to resign her position because of her health in 1894, age 29.
During this time, she married Henry Picotte, a mixed-blood Sioux from the Yankton reservation and the brother of Charles Picotte, the late husband of her activist sister Marguerite La Flesche Diddock. La Flesche had always claimed
that married life was not for her, and the marriage took everyone by surprise. Despite her lifelong aversion to alcohol, Henry was a hard-drinking man prone to fist fights. The couple eventually had two children, Pierre and Caryl, but the union remained difficult.
La Flesche, never healthy enough to take up her old position as a traveling physician, now turned to public-health reform. Like most tribes of the plains who had been forced to abandon their nomadic traditions, the Omahas were emotionally ill-prepared for the sedentary ways of white farmers. Government promises of much-needed farm equipment and supplies of grain were most often unkept. The result was a people stripped of their traditions and reduced to abject poverty, unable to cope in the substandard, unsanitary living conditions forced upon them, with disease easily running rampant, and alcohol consumption, always forbidden by tribal elders, making the situation infinitely worse.
Working to educate the tribal people to the causes of infection, La Flesche fought an uphill battle, since little was known at the time about how diseases were transmitted. Though the electron microscope had not yet been invented, doctors knew that such diseases as tuberculosis and influenza could be spread through use of the same drinking cup. La Flesche also campaigned against the house fly, which could aid in the spread of numerous infections, from typhoid to tuberculosis. As a result of her efforts, government agencies urged the installation of screen doors, fly traps and lime pits for outdoor toilets or garbage cans.
It was her campaign against alcohol for which La Flesche probably worked most tirelessly, lobbying the Nebraska state legislature to bar it from all reservations. To her, the "demon rum" was killing the Omaha people both physically and spiritually. Ironically, though her efforts helped to institute a ban in her hometown of Walthill, she could never convince her husband of the dangers of alcohol abuse. In 1905, Henry died as a result of excessive drinking, leaving her with two young sons to support. Eventually, she was well enough to return to a small private medical practice, funded by the Blackbird Hills Presbyterian Church, and held her position there until her death, on September 18, 1915.
Green, Norma Kidd. Iron Eye's Family: The Children of Joseph La Flesche. Lincoln, NE: Johnson, 1969.
Mathes, Valerie Sherer. "Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte: The Reformed and the Reformers," in Indian Lives: Essays on Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Native American Leaders. L.G. Moses and Raymond Wilson, eds. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1895, pp. 61–90.
La Flesche, Susan. "My Childhood and Womanhood, Salutatory by Susan La Flesche, of the Graduating Class," in Southern Workman. July 1886.
La Flesche Family Papers (LFP), Nebraska State Historical Society, Lincoln, Nebraska.
Deborah Jones , freelance writer, Studio City, California