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Susan La Flesche Picotte: The First Native Doctor

Portrait of Dr Susan La Flesche Picotte
Webb, Harry A. Fletcher, Alice Cunningham (Collector)
Photo Lot 24 SPC Plains Omaha BAE 4558 Family Photos 00691200, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution
Portrait of Dr Susan La Flesche Picotte

Susan La Flesche Picotte simply could not have dreamed of a hospital as a child. She wouldn't have known what a hospital was. Her father was a chief on the Omaha reservation, a mixed blood headman who'd spent enough time away from the reservation to note the sheer numbers of white folks in St. Louis and elsewhere, numbers that would destroy the culture of the Omaha people if they did not drastically alter their way of life.

Susan La Flesche Picotte could not have dreamed of a hospital as a girl either, because she wouldn't have given a thought to a "career," wouldn't have known what a career was when she went to the reservation mission school the Presbyterians ran, or when, unlike most Omaha girls, but like her older sisters before her, she'd boarded the train for the east, for Elizabeth, New Jersey, where she attended a school for girls, far from her reservation home.

She loved New Jersey, but she dreamed always of going home and becoming a teacher in the world she missed. At the Elizabeth Institute, she proved smart as a whip; but a half a continent away from her family and her people beside the wide Missouri, she dreamed of little else than a classroom where she could be the teacher Omaha children needed to help through all the changes.

In 1884, when she was 19 years old, she went out east again, this time to Hampton Institute, Hampton, Virginia, a school whose mission was to train African-Americans to be teachers and leaders of their newly freed people. The very first class was taught under a sprawling oak that still stands, "the Emancipation Oak." When Hampton admitted Native students also, Susan, her sister Marguerite, and other Omaha children enrolled. At Hampton, Susan distinguished herself quickly and graduated as the salutatorian of her class.

At Hampton she first dreamed about medicine. In 1886, on the reservation it would not have been strange for a woman to be a healer, but most Euro-Americans considered a woman doctor unthinkable because medicine required an acquaintance with the human body and its functions that was thought, well, unladylike. But her friends encouraged her to apply to one of the few medical schools that would accept women. When she did, she was accepted, and once again distinguished herself by graduating three years later at the top of her class.

In 1888, when Susan La Flesche became the first female Native American doctor, it's still unlikely she dreamed of a hospital. She wanted only to go home and help her people with an epidemic of measles that, back then, was a dreaded killer. She told her friends and supporters back east that she wanted to teach and practice medicine and public health, and live with her family among people she loved.

That's what she did, both on the reservation and off, treating white folks and Native, the very first female Native American doctor.

That’s when her dream of a hospital began to haunt her, because, on horseback or by buggy, to get to Walthill from Bancroft back then took hours; and emergencies abounded around the reservation, even--maybe especially--in unforgiving January cold or blazing summer heat. When she and her husband had children and his farm work meant he couldn't stay with the kids, Dr. Sue bundled her children along, even in bitter cold. For years, Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte kept an office but spent hours and full days and nights in the buggy, visiting patients and handling emergencies within 450 square miles. Then, the dream of hospital would not let her alone.

Even though she was still young, her own health slowly and painfully became an issue. A thousand patients and 20-hour workdays depleted her strength. Chronic illnesses led to her loss of hearing; a fall from her horse left her unsteady and weakened just at the time in the life of Dr. Sue when a hospital became more than a dream.

In 1913, when she was 48 years old, a spacious new community hospital was completed and dedicated in Walthill, a regional facility with two general wards, five private wards, a maternity ward and an operating room, a beautiful building designed with wonderful windows and large open spaces, created to serve both Native- and Euro-Americans.

Although she nurtured that dream into being, she couldn't lead when the hospital opened. Two years later, Susan La Flesche Picotte passed away from bone cancer that had ravaged her body for so many of the last years.

Today, this wonderful historic place, the dream of the first Native American doctor, up on a hill in Walthill, NE, is being restored and refurbished, as it should be, with a mission to bring peace and healing to all the communities around the world Dr. Sue so loved.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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