International Women’s Day was last Monday, but it’s never too late to celebrate incredible people! So, today, I’d like to introduce you to someone. Meet Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte.
Dr. Susan, as her patients called her, was born in 1865 on the Omaha reservation in Nebraska. At age eight, Dr. Susan stayed with an elderly Omaha woman, watching her die a slow, painful death. The white doctor never came to treat the woman, despite insisting that he would be there eventually. This episode terrified Dr. Susan (naturally), but it also inspired her to become a doctor and provide her community the care they needed.
After fourteen years of schooling on the Omaha reservation, Dr. Susan spent a few years at the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey. When she returned home, she taught at the reservation’s Quaker Mission School, where she met ethnologist Alice Fletcher, who encouraged her to enroll in what is now the Hampton Institute. Dr. Susan later enrolled in the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and became the first Native American to earn a medical degree. But she did not just earn her degree. Dr. Susan graduated as her class valedictorian.
She took this degree back to the Omaha reservation with her, where she treated her tribe members for tuberculosis, cholera, and everything else you could think of. When her white counterpart quit, upon seeing how many patients preferred Dr. Susan, she found herself the only physician on a 1,350 square mile reservation. Dr. Susan would travel for miles and risk her life to treat her patients, even if they dismissed her diagnosis because she earned her degree from a distant school.
Among several other accomplishments, Dr. Susan led a temperance campaign on the reservation, advocated for proper hygiene, and opened a private practice in Bancroft, Nebraska. She even helped her patients with legal and political matters. Her greatest accomplishment was when she realized her dream of building a hospital on the reservation in 1913. The hospital was in Walthill, Nebraska, and it was the first modern hospital in Thurston County. Dr. Susan was, simply put, the champion of the Omaha tribe.
There is much more to Dr. Susan’s story than that, but I have to cap it here. If you want to learn more about women in S.T.E.M.M., check out the Ladies in Technology (L.I.T.) club at U.S.G. You can find the details on U.S.G. OrgLife through the Center for Student Engagement and Financial Resources. Also, my colleague, Marianeli, wrote a fantastic post about more women worth celebrating, so feel free to check that out if you haven’t already. And, happy Women’s History Month, everyone!
All biographical information presented here is courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine and the NIH’s “Changing the Face of Medicine” exhibition.