National Native American Heritage Month: Susan La Flesche Picotte, Medical Pioneer and Traveling Doctor

Susan La Flesche Picotte was the first known Native American in the United States to receive a medical degree as a doctor. A crucial component of Picotte’s pioneering medical career was her heavy reliance on transportation for visiting patients in far-flung locations.

Picotte was born in 1865 on the Omaha Reservation of the Omaha tribe in northeastern Nebraska. The ancestry of Picotte’s father Joseph La Flesche was both Ponca (a Midwestern Native American tribe) and French Canadian. Notwithstanding his Ponca heritage, he identified culturally with the Omaha people and became a member of that tribe. La Flesche was adopted as an adult by Big Elk, a chief of the Omaha. By the mid-1850s, La Flesche had become the tribe’s principal leader.

Mary Gale was his wife and Picotte’s mother. Gale’s father was a white U.S. Army surgeon and her mother traced her own ancestry not only to the Omaha people but also both the Otoe and Iowa tribes.

From the time she was a child, Picotte aspired to become a doctor so that she could provide needed medical care to underserved individuals who also lived on the Omaha Reservation. A huge step in achieving that goal took place when she attended the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP). Picotte, who excelled in her studies at that college and was at the top of her, graduated with a medical degree in 1889.  

The Connecticut Indian Association, an auxiliary of the Women’s National Indian Association (a religious organization focused on reservation-based Native American communities west of the Mississippi River), had helped pay for Picotte’s expenses as a student at WMCP. After her graduation, the Connecticut Indian Association appointed Picotte to serve as the medical missionary for the Omaha Reservation.

Picotte subsequently invested considerable time, expertise, and energy as a doctor for the reservation where she had been born and raised. She served more than 1,300 patients in a region encompassing 450 square miles (1,165.5 square kilometers). Picotte’s all-weather, year-round daily regimen involved making her way on mostly unpaved roads throughout that large area to visit patients at their homes. She addressed both routine health-care needs for her patients and such widespread medical scourges as cholera, diphtheria, dysentery, influenza, smallpox, and trachoma.

The time that Picotte expended for these visits each day often began before sunrise and lasted until well after nightfall. She sometimes logged “on the road” workdays of up to 20 hours. Picotte’s initial means of mobility for getting to the homes of patients included traveling by foot or riding a horse named Pie. Ultimately, though, Picotte began using horse-drawn buggies instead to make her house calls.

She married Henry Picotte, a member of the Sioux tribe, in 1894. They had two sons, Caryl (born in 1895 or 1896) and Pierre (born in 1898). Susan La Flesche Picotte, in trying to balance both her responsibilities as the mother of two young children and her duties as a doctor, frequently brought Caryl and Pierre along with her when she visited patients. Caryl remarked later in life that he and his brother were raised in the back of a horse-drawn buggy.

Picotte’s husband passed away in 1906. She died of bone cancer in 1915 at the age of 50. Fittingly enough, one of the more recently created tributes to Susan La Flesche Picotte and her trailblazing medical accomplishments can be found at a multimodal transportation facility in the midwestern United States. In 2018, a bust of her was formally unveiled at the Martin Luther King Jr. Transportation Center in Sioux City, Iowa.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

For more information on Susan La Flesche Picotte, please check out https://www.lincoln.ne.gov/City/Departments/Parks-and-Recreation/Parks-Facilities/Public-Art/La-Flesche-Picotte and https://www.legendsofamerica.com/na-susanlafleschepicotte/

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