Susan La Flesche Picotte was a Native American doctor and reformer in the late 19th century. She is widely acknowledged as one of the first Native Americans to earn a medical degree. She campaigned for public health and for the formal, legal allotment of land to members of the Omaha tribe.
She was born to Chief Joseph La Flesche (Iron Eyes) and his wife, Mary (One Woman) on the Omaha Reservation in northeastern Nebraska. She attended school on the reservation until age 14 and was home-schooled for several years before she was sent to the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey. She returned home at age 17 to teach at the Quaker Mission School on the Omaha Reservation for two years.
As a child, she had watched a sick Indian woman die because the local white doctor would not give her care. Picotte later credited this tragedy as her inspiration to train as a physician. She went back east to complete her education and earn a medical degree at Hampton Institute, one of the nation’s first and finest schools of higher education for non-white students. The resident physician there, Martha Waldron, was a graduate of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP) and encouraged her to apply to the Woman’s Medical College. After only two years in a three-year program at WMCP, La Flesche graduated in 1889 at the top of her class. She remained in Philadelphia to complete an internship, and then returned home to provide health care to the Omaha people at the government boarding school, where she was responsible for 1,200 people.
Susan La Flesche married Henry Picotte in 1894 and the couple moved to Bancroft, Nebraska, where she set up a private practice, serving both white and non-white patients. Along with her busy practice, Dr. Picotte raised two sons and cared for her husband through a terminal illness. In 1906, she led a delegation to Washington, D.C., to lobby for prohibition of alcohol on the reservation. In 1913, two years before her death, she saw her life’s dream fulfilled when she opened a hospital in the reservation town of Walthill, Nebraska. Today the hospital houses a museum dedicated to the work of Dr. Picotte and the history of the Omaha and Winnebago tribes.