A snapshot biography of Leonie Zesch

Antique sepia-toned portrait of Leonie Zesch. She wears a high-collared dark blouse with a double row of buttons, and a lace-trimmed hat adorned with large flowers on top. Her hair is pulled back, and she has a contemplative expression with a faint smile.
Leonie von Meusebach–Zesch

In profession, Leonie von Meusebach–Zesch was a dentist. In personality, she was the greatest of adventurers. Nothing seemed to scare her, and she found creative solutions to seemingly any problem.

In a time when women rarely went to college and even less earned advanced degrees, Leonie graduated as a Doctor in Dental Surgery at the age of nineteen in 1902. As one person said to her, “A woman dentist? You are the first one I’ve seen or even heard of. You don’t really expect to make a living practicing dentistry?” with the accent on the word ‘living.’”

Well, she would certainly make a living. But she would also do much more. Leonie moved to San Francisco, where she quickly became an important part of the community, especially after the devastating 1906 earthquake. During this time, she was crucial in providing dental care to injured people, helping to treat their injuries, infections, and pain.

After establishing herself in San Francisco, Leonie expanded her practice to Arizona. Here, her innovative spirit began to show. Understanding the transportation challenges of the time, as few Americans had cars then, Leonie set out to make access to care easy. She purchased a Model T Ford and converted it into a mobile dental clinic. Doing so allowed her to travel across the state, providing much-needed services to underserved communities.

Leonie’s adventurous spirit then led her to Alaska in the early 1920s, where she served the population, including the local Inuit communities for fifteen years. Here, Leonie adapted to the harsh weather and terrain conditions with her trademark ingenuity and resilience. Often traveling great distances to reach her patients, she at times utilized a custom sixteen-foot dog sled to navigate the snowy terrains. In addition to the dog sleds, Leonie sometimes relied on airplanes for transportation, a rare and risky method given the time. Leonie herself survived a plane crash here.

Towards the end of her life, Leonie wrote,

“My mind always urged me to live a tranquil, ordered existence because that is the professional ideal. But my spirit hungered for the unusual. I rebelled against the prosaic mold into which the majority of the human race was being poured. I wanted adventure: beautiful, joyous, and romantic. Most of the dreams I have dreamed have been realized, though every silver lining has had its cloud.”

After many years of serving as many patients, Leonie passed away on September 12, 1944.

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Click here to read a snapshot biography of Anna Elizabeth Dickinson.

“A snapshot biography of Leonie Zesch” sources: Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame / Photograph of Leonie taken in 1902 – Wikimedia Commons. / Zesch, Leonie von. Leonie: A Woman Ahead of Her Time. United States, Lime Orchard Publications, 2011.