Person

Susan La Flesche Picotte

Black and white portrait of Susan La Flesche Picotte
Susan La Flesche Picotte

Nebraska Commission of Indian Affairs (http://indianaffairs.state.ne.us)

Quick Facts

"My office hours are any and all hours of the day and night." - Susan La Flesche Picotte

Susan La Flesche was born June 17, 1865 on Nebraska's Omaha reservation to Chief Iron Eye (Joseph La Flesche) and his wife One Woman (Mary Gale).

As a young girl, she watched a sick American Indian woman wait all night for a white doctor who, after being called for several times, never came. The woman died the next day and, as La Flesche later wrote, she "saw the need of my people for a good physician."

Her father made sure Susan learned the traditions of her people, but also pushed his children to be educated in Euro-American society for their own survival. After a trip to Washington D.C. in the 1830s, he told his people "There is a coming flood which will soon reach us, and I advise you to prepare for it."

Chief Iron Eye sent Susan to the reservation's Presbyterian school where she learned English, and then to New Jersey's Hampton Institute at the age of 14 for further education.

As a young woman, La Flesche applied to the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. It was a bold move on her part. At this time, even the most privileged women in America faced enormous backlash when attempting a medical degree. Male doctors wrote that academic stress could make women infertile and having smaller brains made them incapable of medical practice.

Despite this, La Flesche graduated a year early and first in her class. Rejecting a potentially comfortable life on the east coast, she returned to the Omaha reservation and became the sole doctor for more than 1,200 people across 400+ miles. She was 24 years old.

She married Henry Picotte in 1894 and had two sons (Caryl and Pierre). She once again defied expectations by continuing to serve her people relentlessly as their doctor, sometimes taking her children with her on house calls.

In 1913, with help from her husband and donations, she opened the first hospital on a reservation that was not funded by the government. Unlike the absent doctor she remembered from her childhood, La Flesche Picotte helped anyone who needed it, regardless of race or ethnicity.

On September 18, 1915, Susan La Flesche Picotte passed away from chronic health issues after a life of dedicated service. She worked hard to build a bridge between two worlds as her father had advised, and it was evident at her funeral. Three priests eulogized her, but it was a member of the Omaha tribe who delivered the final words in the Omaha language.