Susan La Flesche Picotte, first native american woman to earn an M.D.

Susan La Flesche Picotte

“The shores of success can only be reached by crossing the bridge of faith, and I shall try hard.”

Susan La Flesche Picotte was born in the Omaha Native American tribe in 1865. She was the daughter of the tribal chief, one who believed that Native Americans were going to need to assimilate into white society. So he raised his children with Native American markings. And he sent them to schools for white children. He gave them white names and had them learn English. But while he believed in assimilation, he also fought for the rights of his people.

Growing up, Susan developed a love for medicine and desire to become a doctor. It’s not clear exactly when this passion began. It might have been when she nursed a white woman back to good health. Or maybe it happened while she watched many of her people fall ill.  The Omaha were used to living in the plains, but were now living cramped in wooden homes on a reservation. This was a difficult adjustment and many were struggling, falling ill. There was little medical care for them. Which may have inspired Susan as she wanted to help her people.

After attending Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, Susan went to Medical School at the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia. She was able to attend because the Connecticut Indian Association paid her tuition. Through this pursuit, her father encouraged her, telling her to “learn all they can teach you.”

On March 14th, 1889, she graduated as one of the top students in her class, thus becoming the first Native American woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S.

Susan moved back to live with her tribe, where shortly after the tribe voted for her to be the doctor for everyone. She would travel on horseback and covered wagon to make sure she offered care to all 1,244 people living on the reservation.

Source: American women of medicine by Russell Roberts