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History's Forgotten Pioneer: The First Native American Doctor

Susan La Flesche Picotte was a child when she witnessed a woman die on her Omaha reservation after a white doctor refused to come even after being summoned four times. She vowed to become a doctor herself, although that was unheard of in 1873. La Flesche graduated from medical school in 1889 and became the first Native American medical doctor. She could have made a good living in the big cities of the East, but went back home to serve her people.

She was 24 and had her work cut out for her. The only physician for more than 1,200 patients spread across 1,350 square miles, she used a horse and buggy to make house calls. She delivered babies and treated diseases like cholera, influenza and tuberculosis on the reservation and in the surrounding White towns. Seeing an urgent need for more centralized care, she set to work on her ultimate dream of building a hospital where everyone could be treated. In 1913, with $9,000 — raised primarily from her East Coast connections, and without a single taxpayer dollar — La Flesche opened the first-of-its-kind modern reservation hospital in Walthill, Nebraska.

Yet, in spite of her achievements, La Flesche and her family sparked controversy back home. Many tribe members resented Chief Joseph’s eagerness to assimilate White and Native American culture, Starita says, chiding him for what they called his “Village of the Make-Believe White Men.” For her part, La Flesche, raised on the reservation by mixed-race parents but educated in White schools, was trapped in a catch-22: “She wasn’t Indian enough to satisfy some members of her tribe,” explains Starita, “and she wasn’t White enough to gain the full respect of some people she would later meet in New Jersey, Virginia and Philadelphia.”

Read the story of Susan La Flesche Picotte at Ozy.

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