The Wild West of Yester-Year

Susan la Flesche Picotte
By Rachel Kovaciny

If you ever watched the ‘90s TV show Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, you probably learned a woman being a doctor in the Wild West was virtually unheard of. The titular doctor of that show spent a lot of time and energy proving her medical skills and competence to skeptical people who could not believe any medical school would grant a degree to a woman. While many things in that show were not exactly factual, the basic premise of a woman doctor being rare in the 1800s was all too true. The US had only a handful of women’s medical colleges in the nineteenth century, and they were separate institutions from male medical schools. Few female doctors got taken seriously once they’d earned a degree. Even in the west, where social rules were often bent or ignored in the face of harsh frontier realities, the public expected women to be mothers and wives, not doctors. 

Now, compound those societal hurdles with the racial prejudices prevalent in those days, and you’ll understand just how remarkable Susan la Flesche Picotte was. Because not only was she a woman doctor, she was a Native American doctor. In fact, she’s believed to have been the first Native American to earn a medical degree in all of US history. Born in 1865 in Nebraska to Joseph la Flesche, the last recognized chief of the Omaha, Susan grew up in a world of upheaval and change. Her parents supported the attempts to assimilate Native peoples into white society, and the Omaha tribe eventually split over this issue. Susan’s parents put those beliefs into practice by sending their children to the mission school on their reservation. 

Life was harsh on the Omaha reservation. After seeing a fellow Native die for lack of medical care, Susan felt called to learn how to practice medicine herself. At age fourteen, she traveled east to attend the Elizabeth Institute in New Jersey, then finished her degree at the Hampton Institute in Virginia. Upon graduation, she was granted a scholarship to pursue a higher degree. La Flesche used that scholarship to attend the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, where she studied not only general medicine, but obstetrics and pharmaceutical science. Susan la Flesche graduated first in her class and, even more remarkably, she earned her medical degree in three years instead of four! Not only that, but she was named valedictorian of her class. As soon as she had her diploma, she returned to the Omaha reservation and dedicated her life to helping her people. She got offered the position of official government physician at the Omaha Agency Indian School where, at age twenty-four, she became the only doctor for more than a thousand people.

Though required only to treat the children at the school, la Flesche was the only physician of any sort in the vicinity, and many other Omaha people came to her for treatment. Because she could read and write English, she also helped translate documents and write and read letters. In 1894, Susan la Flesche married Henry Picotte, a South Dakota Sioux. The couple had two sons, Caryl and Pierre. Susan continued to practice medicine after the births of her sons, and set up private medical practice in Bancroft, Nebraska. She sometimes took her sons with her on house calls. Tuberculosis, influenza, and alcoholism plagued the people in her area, and she treated both white and Native patients.

Henry Picotte became an alcoholic. This prompted Susan to join the temperance movement. After her husband died in 1905, she led a delegation to Washington, DC, to lobby for the prohibition of alcohol on reservations. She continued to practice medicine and work toward better education and opportunities for her fellow Omaha. In 1913, she opened the first privately funded hospital on any US reservation. Her own health was failing by then and she died two years later, possibly from cancer. Susan la Flesche defied conventions, overcame financial hurdles, and broke down racial barriers to bring health and hope to her people. She is a true heroine and an example of how to succeed by working hard, accepting help when you need it, and giving back to those who have supported you.