Category: Frontier life, Social Activism, Medicine
Death Date: September 18, l9l5
State Contribution: Medical doctor, founded hospital, public health legislation
National Contribution: Indian rights spokesperson, health legislation
Susan LaFlesche Picotte, the first native American woman to earn a medical degree, was born on the Omaha reservation near Macy in northeastern Nebraska in 1865. She was the youngest daughter of Mary and Joseph LaFlesche. Mary was a daughter of Dr. John Gale and Ni-co-mi of the Iowa tribe. Joseph, also known as Iron Eye, was a son of Joseph LaFlesche, a French trader and his wife, a woman of the Ponca tribe. Iron Eye was the last recognized chief of the Omaha.
Between 1870 and 1879 Susan attended school on the reservation. At the age of 14, she enrolled at the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies at Elizabeth, New Jersey. Here she studied philosophy, physiology, and literature. After she was graduated in 1882, Susan worked at the Mission School on the Omaha reservation until 1884. Along with two of her sisters, she attended Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia from 1884 to 1886.
Susan then entered Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia, receiving financial aid from the Women's National Indian Association. She was graduated, first in her class of thirty-six members, in 1889 with a medical degree. After interning for one year at Women's Hospital in Philadelphia, Susan returned to the Omaha reservation to become a physician for the government school. Later she became government physician for the Omaha Tribe. She was the only Indian ever appointed as a medical missionary by the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions.
In 1894 Susan married Henry Picotte. They were the parents of two sons. After her marriage, Dr. Picotte resigned from government school work and settled at Bancroft where she cared for her family and her ailing mother and also provided medical care for Indians and for her white neighbors.
In 1905 Henry Picotte died. The next year Dr. Picotte, along with her sons and her mother, moved to the new community of Walthill to live near her sister, Marguerite Diddock. The two sisters were active in the community, sponsoring religious and community activities.
Dr. Picotte was also active in medical organizations. She was one of the founders of the Thurston County Medical Association. As county health officer, she was involved in public health issues. She lobbied at the State Legislature for better public health laws.
As a member of the State Medical Association, Dr. Picotte worked to combat alcoholism among the Omaha, and she lectured in favor of temperance. Her father, Joseph LaFlesche, had worked successfully for temperance among the Omaha for many years. In 1906 Dr. Picotte's work brought about in Washington, D.C. a stipulation that every property deed in communities on the Omaha reservation would prohibit the sale of alcohol.
Dr. Picotte was an able spokesperson for her people, declaring that she would cooperate with the Indian Agencies in anything that was for the good of the tribe. She battled government bureaucracy and worked for economic, social, and spiritual advancement of native Americans.
In 1912 a new hospital, built for Dr. Picotte with funds received from grants and donations, opened in Walthill. After Dr. Picotte died on September 18, 1915, the hospital was named in her honor. The hospital existed until the late 1940s. Later it served as a care center for the elderly. In 1989 the building was restored and it now displays photos and artifacts from Dr. Picotte's life. Named the Susan LaFlesche Picotte Center, it commemorates Dr. Picotte's medical work and her life, dedicated to the welfare of her people.
Because of Joseph LaFlesche's foresight, Susan LaFlesche Picotte and the other LaFlesche children were well educated. In order to work effectively for the welfare of the Omaha and other native Americans, they adapted to the ways of the white culture around them. They truly lived in two cultures.