Susan LaFlesche Picotte (1865-1915)
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
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