The First Native American to Earn a Medical Degree

When Susan La Flesche entered medical school in 1886, she had two strikes against her: she was a woman, and she was a Native American. She couldn't vote, and as a member of the Omaha tribe, she was not even considered an American citizen. But she spoke four languages and graduated at the top her class from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania three years later.  

None of the challenges of her education could fully prepare La Flesche for what she encountered upon her return to the reservation as physician for the Omaha Agency, which was operated by the Office of Indian Affairs. Soon after she opened the doors to her new office in the government boarding school, the tribe began to file in. Many of them were sick with tuberculosis or cholera, others simply looking for a clean place to rest. She became their doctor, but in many ways their lawyer, accountant, priest and political liaison. So many of the sick insisted on Dr. Susan, as they called her, that her white counterpart suddenly quit, making her the only physician on a reservation stretching nearly 1,350 square miles.

She dreamed of one day building a hospital for her tribe. But for now, she made house calls on foot, walking miles through wind and snow, on horseback and later in her buggy, traveling for hours to reach a single patient. But even after risking her own life to reach a distant patient, she would often encounter Omahas who rejected her diagnosis and questioned everything she’d learned in a school so far away.

Nevertheless, she persevered. Read the story of Susan La Flesche at Smithsonian.

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