30 December 2004

Susan La Flesche Picotte, M.D.

Remembering the first American Indian female M.D.
Picotte served on Omaha Reservation
It has been almost a century since she died, but the memory of the first Native American female M.D. still has relevant lessons in this day and age of wrangling over American Indian health care.
According to Heath Care for Native Americans website, Susan La Flesche Picotte was born in 1856 and lived until 1915.
La Flesche received her medical degree from the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1889, graduating at the top of her class. She spent her internship at the Woman's Hospital in Philadelphia. From August of 1889 to October of 1893, she served on the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska as physician to her tribe, finally resigning for health reasons.
During this time, she worked for the government's Office of Indian Affairs. From 1891 to 1893 she also served as "medical missionary" for her tribe, so designated by the Women's National Indian Association. This dual workload included travel across the length and breadth of the Omaha Reservation, making house calls in addition to receiving patients in her office. La Flesche married in the summer of 1894 and added her husband's last name, Picotte, to her own.
Throughout the remainder of her life, Picotte worked for improved health conditions of the Omaha tribe. This is born out by her extensive correspondence with the Commissioner of Indian Affairs throughout her career, as well as local newspaper accounts of her community achievements in Walthill, Nebraska.

Picotte died on September 18, 1915.
The website features tantalizing tidbits from newspapers of the era
chronicling Picotte's contributions.
"Dr. La Flesche commenced her studies of English at the school on the Indian reservation. Coming East, she continued them for awhile at a boarding-school, and later at the excellent school for her people at Hampton, Va., where she graduated in 1886, and came at once to Philadelphia to study medicine. The impulse to a professional career was not of recent growth nor from friendly suggestions from those who had watched her course," wrote the Medical Missionary Record in 1889. "It came as an inspiration when at home with her people and was born of a desire to see them independent, so far as she could make them, of the too frequently unskilled and oftener indifferent attention of the reservation doctor. What must those who oppose women physicians as impossibilities or monstrosities think of such a course? Thoughtful of a service to her people, child though she was, she permits not the magnitude of her task to stay the inspiration, but bravely, thoughtfully, diligently pursues the course, and to day receives her fitting reward. All this without a precedent. She will stand among her people as the first woman physician. Surely we may record with joy such courage, constancy and ability."


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