Freedom at Dawn: The Inspiring Story of Trailblazing Doctor Susan La Flesche Picotte
Updated: Mar 19
Freedom at Dawn
Susan La Flesche glanced out her window at the Nebraskan prairie as she finished braiding her long black hair. Impatient to be out where the wind blew cool and free, she hurried to get ready before the last star disappeared from the sky.
Running out the door of her home, laughing with the pure joy of the morning, the young girl took out her favorite pony. Riding bareback into the dawn, she urged the pony to go a little faster. All the while, she carefully guided him away from any holes that might hurt his legs.
The golden light spanning the sky slowly faded. Susan turned her pony around now, aware of the lonely sound of his hooves clip-clopping over the ground. No longer did the noise of the buffalo thunder over the prairie. No longer did the sound of thousands of wings brush the sky.
Original lands of the Omaha and other Plains tribes are in green. Reservation lands are in orange.
Born on June 17th in 1865, Susan lived on the Omaha Reservation in northeastern Nebraska. Relegated to a small percentage of the former land of the Omaha Tribe, they could no longer hunt whatever buffalo had survived the guns of the newcomers. They had to wait for meat that had been promised but rarely came. Susan's father cut into his own herd of cattle to keep his people from starving.
Why Didn't He Care?
Now, Susan gently reined in her pony as a familiar sight came into view. She studied the scene once more, analyzing it with both her mind and heart.
An Omaha woman stood pleading with the European doctor who was in charge of health care at her reservation. His attention was on the horizon and he listened with an air of disinterest fading into boredom.
Susan could not understand it. He had spent years studying to become a doctor.
Why didn't he care?
Susan, still a child, would later watch a sick woman die because the doctor would not give her proper treatment. On that day, Susan reached up and took the last star from the sky. She held it in her hand and it burned there with the fire of her desire to become a doctor herself. When she became an adult, never again would one of her people die needlessly if she could help it.
Susan La Flesche was the youngest of four daughters born to Joseph (Iron Eye) and Mary (The One Woman) La Flesche. Her parents emphasized the importance of reading and education, and she attended a boarding school on her reservation until the age of 14.
She went on to attend the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey. Later, she attended Virginia's well-regarded Hampton Institute. Originally founded for newly-freed slaves, the Institute now accepted Native Americans as well.
Susan was inspired by her classes and immersed herself in the study of
literature, mathematics, physiology and writing, among other subjects. Blessed with a sunny nature and smile, Susan nevertheless studied as if many lives depended on her hard work. In her heart, Susan knew she wanted to make a difference and never lost sight of her dream.
A large part of her dream came true when she was accepted by the Women's Medical College in Philadelphia. She was concerned about how she would do in these advanced courses and if she would be excluded from the social life at the college.
Susan found she was warmly welcomed by her new roommate and the other young women at the college. In her rare spare time, she toured the museums and monuments dedicated to America's freedom. She received many curious looks and some stares, but she walked with her back straight and head high. She kept to her purpose of being in Philadelphia.
Again in a hurry, Susan completed the three-year coursework in only two years. She became the first Native American woman to earn a medical degree, graduating in the top half of her class.
Physicians in the late 19th century. Susan is in the second row from the back, fourth from the right.
Doctor Sue Begins Her Work
Dr. Susan La Flesche returned to the reservation as she'd promised. Only 24, she threw herself into a rigorous routine of meeting the urgent needs there. In the freezing cold of winter or during the hot, dusty summers, Susan never turned away a patient of any heritage.
Her day usually began in the dawn hours that she loved. She would head out on horseback and later in a buggy. She'd often return, exhausted, at 10:00 at night.
Dr. La Flesche used her young adulthood to care for everyone who needed her, fighting measles, tuberculosis, malnutrition and the harrowing disease of alcoholism. Hating what she saw happening to those affected, she campaigned against liquor on the reservation.
To counteract the negative forces, Susan began a reading room stocked with books, magazines, plants and games for the children. In addition, she started a night school, Sunday School and a church. Clubs on various subjects for young people were also held regularly.
Hardships and Heartbreak
It took all her energy to be the only physician in a wide territory, and Susan's health began to fail. She developed earaches and pain from being out in the biting cold of sub-zero temperatures. She had to take time off to recuperate, but she still helped anyone who needed her to translate papers or to fight for legal rights.
From left, Susan, her sister Marguerite, Marguerite's husband, Walter, and seated, Henry Picotte.
She also found happiness and sorrow as a wife. She married a man of Sioux heritage, Henry Picotte, in 1894. In another break from societal expectations, Henry was proud of his wife's work and helped take care of their two sons when she went out on calls.
Susan's life was full until one of the most serious diseases on the reservation finished its grip on her own family. Her husband died of the effects of alcoholism in 1905.
A New Dream
She had a new dream now: a hospital where the critically ill could be cared for in a proper and clean environment. She again poured her life into being a physician, raising funds to realize the dream of a hospital on the reservation. The hospital opened its doors in 1913. Always an advocate of cleanliness, sunshine and fresh air, Susan made sure the building had plenty of windows. Even as she went about her duties, as the doctor in charge of the hospital, she continued to struggle from the effects of the hardships on her own health.
On September 18th, 1915, Dr. La Flesche Picotte passed away at the age of 50. Her funeral was attended by all those who loved and respected her, and owed their lives to her. Before the last star disappeared, she had brought hope and help at a critical time to the people she had cared for and loved.
The Susan La Flesche Picotte Memorial Hospital was made a National Historic Landmark in 1993.
More to Explore
To read more about Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte, see this excellent book for ages 9 and up: Native American Doctor by Jeri Ferris.
To read about another courageous and inspiring woman, see my post about pioneering aviator Bessie
One of the characters in my book, Mystery Shores, is a young Native American girl who is determined to become a doctor. Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte is definitely an inspiration to her. My novel of secrets unfolds on a remote lighthouse island in 1893. Mystery Shores is available now at Amazon.com